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Elections matter. And it's looking like last month's results might matter a lot to Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos' job security.
Sources close to City Hall say an item on Tuesday's City Council agenda represents an effort by new members of the council, who were supported by the police union, to oust Cavazos and Police Chief Carlos Rojas.
The closed-session item calls for performance evaluations for Cavazos, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho and City Clerk Maria Huizar.
By the time the council returns from the closed session, Cavazos could be on indefinite paid leave – or not.
Behind the scenes, Mayor Miguel Pulido opposed the hiring of Cavazos in 2013, and has been at odds with him ever since. Meanwhile, the city's police union has openly clashed with Cavazos, the current council majority, and police Chief Carlos Rojas.
Word is Pulido, along with newly elected (and police-union backed) council members Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas, are preparing to make a move on Cavazos. At the same time, councilmen David Benavides, Sal Tinajero and Vincente Sarmiento have indicated they want to keep the city manager.
The reported swing vote is none other than Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who has feuded with Cavazos ever since he accused her of sexual harassment. A city-funded investigation found in June that his accusations had no merit.
Even if Martinez joins a vote against Cavazos, he would likely stay on the city's payroll for the time being. While it takes a simple majority of four votes to put Cavazos on paid leave, it would take five votes to terminate him.
Martinez didn’t return a phone message Monday afternoon seeking comment.
The police union argued throughout the election season that the council majority has turned a blind eye to an officer shortage while Santa Ana’s violent crime rate grew by nearly 50 percent in recent years.
One of the police-union funded campaign mailers criticized council majority members for paying Cavazos an “outrageous” sum of $469,000 a year that could instead be spent on adding patrol officers and other services. The mailer then called on Santa Ana voters to “fire” the council majority members who were running for re-election.
Members of the council majority disputed the union’s claims and said its true motivation was to take control of the city government by electing council members who would be willing to fire Cavazos and Rojas.
Benavides said Monday that the timing of the evaluation – which Villegas requested soon after being sworn in last week – smacks of returning a political favor to the union.
“I’m concerned that members of the City Council, especially new members of the City Council, would try to evaluate somebody that they have not worked with,” Benavides said.
“That clearly gives the appearance that they’re simply paying back a debt to the police union, and playing politics with the future of our city and our residents’ quality of life. It’s concerning to me.”
Villegas didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Meanwhile, the police union’s president criticized Benavides’ remarks.
“I think it’s very unprofessional for people to make those accusations,” said Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers’ Association.
Serrano disputed assertions that his union is behind the agenda item.
"I am not aware of the city manager being placed on administrative leave," Serrano said. "If any such action is taken, clearly it would be based on articulated facts and on his performance; nothing else...it is not our direction, involvement or issue."
Cavazos, for his part, declined an interview request, but said he had spoken with Villegas about the item.
“I did speak with Councilmember Villegas, and he explained to me his rationale for putting my evaluation on the agenda," Cavazos said in a voicemail message to a Voice of OC reporter. "And that was a very, very good explanation, and I’m satisfied with it of course."
And that’s all I’ve got to say. And I look forward to working with the council on building [on] our successes."
Tuesday’s meeting starts at 5 p.m., when the City Council will convene and take public comment before going into closed session on the city manager’s evaluation.
In addition to the city manager's evaluation, council members are scheduled to decide on several other key issues:
- Solidifying Santa Ana's "sanctuary city" resolution into city law through an ordinance.
- New marijuana regulations to comply with California voters' approval of a recreational marijuana ballot measure.
- Directing staff regarding a possible special election in 2017 on changing the city's electoral system to district-based voting.
- Approving $125,000 in city grant funding to KidWorks, the nonprofit group where Benavides is executive director.
- Deciding what to do with $9.1 million in surplus city funds.
- Approving a controversial change to allow the developer of the large Heritage Village project to split up their affordable housing payments to the city into phases.
- Approving $6.2 million in affordable housing dollars from the Heritage Village project to AMCAL Multi-Housing, Inc. for its affordable First Street Apartments project
A previous version of this story misstated the name of Councilman Juan Villegas. We regret the error.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.