The year was 2012, and the Santa Ana City Council’s newly ascendant majority was reveling in their so-called “Santa Ana Spring,” a breaking free of Mayor Miguel Pulido’s iron grip on the business of City Hall.
Among the hallmarks of this effort was the establishment of council committees on a range of issues — from public safety and neighborhood improvement to finance and technology. They were open to the public and lauded by council members as a concrete example of a more transparent city government.
“It’s basically returning government back to the people,” said Councilman David Benavides during his campaign for mayor that year.
Benavides ended up losing to Pulido in the November election. But he and the new council majority wrestled control of appointments to committees away from the mayor.
“It goes back to what we were talking about, decentralizing power bit by bit,” Councilman Sal Tinajero said in December 2012. It was Tinajero who coined the term Santa Ana Spring in reference to the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.
Fast-forward four years and the committee meetings heralded as signs of a more transparent era are mostly cancelled because council members don’t show up. Since the beginning of the year, 12 out of the 22 scheduled committee meetings have been cancelled, according to the city’s website.
This reality has been particularly galling to Chris Schmidt, a Santa Ana resident and active City Hall watcher. Early in the year, Schmidt learned the city was considering eliminating the police department’s animal service officers.
He didn’t like this idea and wanted to make his feelings known to council members. He was pleased when he saw it was on the agenda of the March 22 Public Safety and Neighborhood Improvement Committee. On the day of the meeting, Schmidt went down to City Hall only to find out that it had been cancelled.
So he waited until the committee’s next scheduled meeting on May 24. But that meeting was cancelled too, as was the following meeting, scheduled for July 26.
“I finally gave up,” Schmidt wrote in an email to Voice of OC. “The residents of Santa Ana should be given the opportunity to voice their concerns regarding public safety in their neighborhoods, but apparently our city council members don’t want to hear our concerns.”
Three of the seven council members – Tinajero, Roman Reyna, and Angelica Amezcua — didn’t return phone calls for comment. Pulido hung up on a reporter.
Council members who did comment were quick to acknowledge their absences at the meetings and, for the most part, blamed it on their busy schedules. Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who over the years has been the most active council member when it comes to serving on committees, said the missed meetings are among the downsides of a part-time council.
“Once upon a time I would be very critical of my colleagues for not stepping up,” said Martinez, who has backed off from serving on the committees since beginning her run for the 1st District county supervisor seat against incumbent Supervisor Andrew Do. “Now I realize I have no room to talk – they have families to feed.”
Martinez went on to say that a city as large and complex as Santa Ana should have a full-time council. “You get what you pay for,” she said.
Santa Ana council members are paid $8,100 per year, plus benefits, and do not get any extra stipends for serving on committees. The mayor receives $9,000 plus benefits. A measure that will go before voters on the November ballot calls for their pay to be bumped to $18,600, including for the mayor.
Benavides and Vincent Sarmiento echoed Martinez’s sentiments regarding the many commitments of council members, but weren’t as emphatic about the need for a full-time council.
They described the committee situation as somewhat temporary due to Martinez’s run for supervisor and Amezcua stepping down from her seat after just one term. As a result, committees that previously had three members are now down to two.
“When you have a committee of two if one person can’t show, then you have a committee of one and no meeting,” Benavides said.
Sarmiento wants the committees to continue, saying they allow for more public comment and give council members the opportunity to go more in-depth on issues than they can during regular council meetings. But going forward there needs to be wider involvement, he said, pointing to what he described as Martinez’s perhaps over-involvement in the past and Pulido’s lack of participation.
“We hope we can start including the mayor in these committees,” Sarmiento said. “It’s better to have seven [council members participating] than six.”
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