New Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos was sworn in at Monday night's council meeting, taking the helm under considerable expectations that he will raise the city to another level by identifying new economic opportunities in this largely working-class town.
The mood was light as Cavazos, 53, took the oath of office and posed for pictures with members of the Santa Ana City Council while residents politely applauded.
It was an easy welcome for a city manager who will soon grapple with a budget cut to bare-bone levels, small businesses struggling with downtown gentrification and eminent domain, and residents, coming together in a civic awakening, demanding more parks and services for the city's sizeable youth population.
“Enjoy it, and have fun,” said Councilman Vincent Sarmiento. “Let's not make this all work. And realize this is a very special moment in your career, in the history of the city.”
Cavazos comes to Santa Ana after a four-year stint as Phoenix city manager. Proponents argue that hiring Cavazos is the equivalent of nabbing a star player from a big-city team, as Cavazos implemented creative budget cutting measures that helped pull Phoenix, a city of 1.5 million residents, from its $277-million budget hole.
Cavazos is also credited with revitalizing Phoenix's downtown by attracting $4 billion in public and private investment, steering a light-rail project, and overseeing the composition of Phoenix's five-year strategic plan, accomplishments that mirror goals Santa Ana leaders have set for their city.
But the new city manager has also been criticized for implementing a 2 percent food tax on common groceries in Phoenix, a budget approach seen by many as unimaginative and regressive. Critics said it hit hardest working-class and poor residents, and some were outraged when the city then gave raises to public employees.
Cavazos has also taken heat for negotiating himself lucrative salary and pension benefits. The result was a spike in his Phoenix pension to around $200,000 just weeks after he was asked to end such practices.
And Cavazos secured a compensation package in Santa Ana worth more than $500,000 yearly by first negotiating a large pay raise in Phoenix just months before applying for the top slot in Santa Ana. Some Phoenix council members said they granted the raise at least in part as an incentive to retain him.
Cavazos leaves those controversies behind, but enters a fragile political balance in Santa Ana.
The council majority ousted his predecessor, Paul Walters, after a behind-the-scenes battle with longtime Mayor Miguel Pulido over control of the city bureaucracy. For years, Pulido and a small cadre of city officials held the levers of power at City Hall, an environment that Pulido's critics argue choked the city's democracy.
Members of a new council majority, dubbed the “Santa Ana Spring,” say they are returning City Hall to its residents. The council worked with an activists coalition known as Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development to craft a sunshine ordinance – which requires more transparency and civic participation through mandatory community meetings and a strategic plan shaped by residents -- to help achieve that.
And there is no doubt that Cavazos is part of that plan. He is expected to be innovative with City Hall operations, leverage business and government contacts to attract new investment, and have a keen sense for opportunities to raise this city to a new level -- all the while balancing the interests of residents clamoring for their own vision of Santa Ana.
“We have some great opportunities to improve the economy, to increase transparency, to increase the quality of life,” Cavazos said in an interview after the meeting. “Because it's the fourth highest density in the country, I think there's a really good opportunity going forward for light rail... and one of the things I'm really excited about is the focus on art, and the downtown development.”
“The big goal for me right now is to learn the organization, learn the community and work with the council and leadership to implement a good plan.”
Said Pulido in his closing remarks: “The expectations are high, and I have no doubt that you're going to rise to the occasion.”