Activists Score Victories at Santa Ana City Council Meeting

David P. Senner for Voice of OC

An activist on her way into a Santa Ana City Council meeting.

Santa Ana immigration activists had a strong showing at Tuesday’s City Council meeting – they helped beat back, at least for the time being, an effort to oust City Manager David Cavazos, and then convinced council members to strengthen their “sanctuary city” policy.

There was much talk leading up to the meeting — which was the first since new council members were sworn in — that a police union-backed block, consisting of Mayor Miguel Pulido and newly elected councilmen Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas, had enough votes to put Cavazos on administrative leave.

Ominously for Cavazos, Villegas had placed an evaluation of his performance on the meeting’s closed-session agenda. With councilmen David Benavides, Sal Tinajero, and Vincente Sarmiento all vocal supporters of Cavazos, Councilwoman Michele Martinez is widely considered to be the swing vote on his fate.

Martinez and Cavazos have a long-standing feud dating back to a couple years ago when he accused her of sexual harassment – allegations that a city-funded investigation later found had no merit. But she is also closely linked to activists who are staunchly opposed to the city falling back into the hands of Pulido and the police union.

Before Cavazos came to town in 2013, the city manager was former police Chief Paul Walters, who had a reputation for a relaxed attitude towards officer misconduct. Cavazos and current Chief Carlos Rojas have cracked down in recent years on poor officer behavior and left dozens of officer positions vacant, which has engendered the wrath of the police union.

The union poured more than $250,000 this election season into supporting Pulido, Solorio and Villegas, and opposing Sarmiento and former Councilman Roman Reyna, both of whom support Cavazos and Rojas.

Arguing that Sarmiento and Reyna turned a blind eye to an officer shortage amid skyrocketing crime, the union’s mailers criticized Sarmiento and Reyna for paying Cavazos an “outrageous” sum of $469,000 a year that could instead be spent on adding patrol officers and other services. Reyna ended up losing his re-election bid to Villegas.

Harsh Words During Public Comment

After word circulated that the police union-backed candidates would make a move on Cavazos, activists packed the council chambers to argue their case.

“It’s an assault on democracy. It’s a coup. It’s an attempt to have a police state right now,” said Carlos Perea, an activist with the pro-immigration group Resilience OC. He was one of several public commenters on the city manager item, all of whom urged the council not to proceed with an ouster.

Tinajero, Benavides and Sarmiento didn’t hesitate to join in with their own strong rhetoric.

“It does look like there is some need to go and comply with some requisite that was made before the elections. And so that just doesn’t look, and doesn’t appear, proper,” Sarmiento said.

Tinajero was the most forceful, arguing that Pulido, Villegas and Solorio were trying to pay back the police union for supporting their campaigns.

“We’re going into closed session right now to pay back a political debt,” said Tinajero, whose comments were cheered on by many of the activists in the audience.

He alleged that the police union’s president, Gerry Serrano, told people before the election that the union would spend heavily on the election and only back candidates who support firing the city manager and police chief.

“That, my friends, is corruption,” Tinajero said, adding that he himself was asked by Serrano to help oust the city manager.

“He thought I was gonna run for mayor. And you know the language he used, as we were walking out of our meeting? ‘So Sal, are we gonna throw a body out the window?’ This is who’s just taken over our city.”

Serrano didn’t return a message seeking a response to Tinajero’s comments. And none of the police union-backed council members – Villegas, Pulido, or Solorio – disputed that they were planning to oust the city manager at the police union’s request.

“I cannot speak to that,” Villegas said when Tinajero asked him to share his rationale for the evaluation. “I will not – I’m very private about those type of things. I’m not about all this drama that goes on up here. That’s not my style.”

Following the public comment and as council members were headed into closed session to discuss the issue, dozens of audience members chanted “No more corruption!” “No more deportation!” and “ICE out of Santa Ana” – referring to the federal immigration agency.

After deliberating for over an hour and a half, the council returned to start their open session meeting with a recognition of the Santa Ana High School football team.

As the council was giving the presentation, a reporter witnessed Pulido leave the dais and then speak with Serrano, the police union president, in a hallway.

Later in the meeting, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho announced there was no reportable action in closed session, meaning Cavazos is safe for the time being.

A Stronger Sanctuary City

The council also voted 7-0 to codify the city’s new “sanctuary city” resolution into law through an ordinance – a step that activists successfully pushed council members to take.

More than two dozen activists and residents spoke in support of the step, saying President-elect Donald J. Trump’s expansion of deportations will likely sweep up innocent working people trying to feed their families.

“The folks on Trump’s team consider day laborers, or low-wage immigrant workers looking for work – they consider them a criminal enterprise,” said Salvador Sarmiento, an advocate with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

“We might have a lot of disagreements, but I hope that we can agree that day laborers looking for work to feed their families, is not a criminal enterprise.”

One commenter spoke in support of the city’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house federal immigration detainees in the city jail – Alex Vega, who said inmates are treated humanely there.

The chief concern among council members appeared to be a potential loss of federal funding to Santa Ana, if Trump follows through on his pledge to squeeze sanctuary cities.

But law professors from UCI Irvine and Western State College of Law who spoke at the meeting said the city’s funding is protected under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“The federal government cannot force this city to enforce the president-elect’s deportation policy,” said UC Irvine law professor Seth Davis.

But if the city’s funding does end up get affected, Villegas said he wants to take another look at the sanctuary city policy.

“If we have a severe impact to the city, I recommend we revisit this,” he said.

Activists also won changes that expand the ordinance, by removing what they viewed as a loophole that would allow the city to cooperate with criminal immigration enforcement.

And Martinez joined the activists’ calls for speeding up the end of the city’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house federal immigration detainees in the city jail.

“This jail is not financially solvent, and we must do whatever we possibly can to get out of that business. And we shouldn’t wait 30, 60, 90 days,” Martinez said.

In a sign of her support for such a move, she directed staff to bring back an item at a future meeting to increase the city’s funding for a study on re-using the jail from $50,000 to $150,000.

Solorio also voiced strong support for the sanctuary city effort, even suggesting that the city fund attorneys to help immigrants in deportation proceedings.

“I want to thank the council and the community for standing behind this work. But I’m also here to tell you this isn’t enough,” he said of the sanctuary city ordinance. “I think we [have] got to oppose the Trump administration on many things, starting definitely with breaking up families.”

This post has been updated since it was originally published.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.