It took a special meeting at noon on Wednesday with only 24 hours’ public notice during a holiday week when almost half of the City Council was out of town. But Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido finally got what he wanted: the ouster – at least for the time being – of City Manager David Cavazos.
Four of the city’s seven council members – Pulido, Michele Martinez, Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas — voted unanimously during a closed session that lasted just over an hour to place Cavazos on indefinite paid administrative leave.
The official reason for the move was an investigation into “current and former issues arising from his personal performance evaluations, including but limited to the impacts of personal workplace relationships and the development of a romantic relationship policy.”
This refers to a relationship Cavazos has had for over two years with an employee in the city’s planning department, which he didn’t disclose to the council until a year after it began. Voice of OC revealed the relationship in October 2015, and Cavazos was censured this past June by an international city management association for dating a subordinate.
However, to many who observe Santa Ana politics – not to mention the vast majority of the 30 or so residents and activists who showed up to the meeting Wednesday – the brazen takedown had much more to do with the mayor’s desire to re-assert his power at City Hall, and for new council members to pay back an election-year debt to the city’s police union, than it did an inappropriate workplace relationship.
After the vote was announced, an audience member shouted “Shame!” and another yelled at Pulido: “You are a dictator!”
The council members in attendance said nothing about the issue during the meeting and quickly exited out a side door after the meeting was adjourned.
But they certainly got an earful during the public comment period before the closed session. Of the 15 people who spoke during public comment, 14 opposed the move.
“Miguel, you know I’ve known you for about 35 years or so. And I think this is the most rotten thing you have ever done,” said Sam Romero, a longtime activist in the city’s Logan neighborhood.
“Intentionally you guys put this together so the…rest of the City Council wouldn’t be here, and of course the public, who like myself, that [has to] work,” said Albert Castillo, an activist with Chicanos Unidos.
“Bunch of cowards! You guys are nothing but cowards, to do this,” he added. “This is something that we will never forget.”
Pulido, Solorio and Villegas had tried last week, during the council’s last regular meeting of the year, to get the four votes necessary to put Cavazos on leave. But scores of residents packed the chambers to protest the move, and councilmen Sal Tinajero, David Benavides and Vincente Sarmiento — all strong supporters of Cavazos — spoke vehemently against it.
That was apparently enough to keep Martinez, who had been known as the swing vote on the issue, from pulling the trigger. But it took just over a week for her to change her mind.
Getting rid of Cavazos permanently will be a higher hurdle for Pulido because the city charter requires five votes to fire the city manager. This is unlikely in the short run given the steadfast support Cavazos has from Tinajero, Benavides and Sarmiento.
Cavazos was not at the meeting and has not returned a reporter’s call and email requesting comment.
The council will also have to contend with activists who are furious with what they see as a corrupt deal between the new Pulido-led block of council members and the city’s police union.
The union, which has been highly critical of Cavazos and police Chief Carlos Rojas in recent years as Rojas cracked down on police misconduct and dozens of officer positions remained vacant, spent over $250,000 this year to help elect Pulido, Solorio, and Villegas. It also contributed a small amount to Martinez’ unsuccessful campaign for county supervisor.
“It’s a clear sign of corruption, and again paying political debt. And they have no shame in doing it,” said Carlos Perea, an immigration advocate with Resilience OC.
Pulido has so far declined to comment on the police union’s involvement in his election and the city manager’s ouster. The union’s president, Gerry Serrano, has disputed claims that efforts to oust Cavazos are about paying back a political debt to the union.
During the recent election, the union argued that Cavazos and Rojas turned a blind eye to an officer shortage, and its mailers criticized the prior council majority for paying Cavazos $469,000 a year that could instead be spent on adding patrol officers and other services.
Meanwhile, Tinajero has not been shy about describing the situation as a union-led takeover.
“They need to pay back a bribe,” Tinajero said in a phone interview Tuesday. “So what they have done is called a meeting at a time when people are on vacation and people are working, to assure that there is no public comment on what is so apparent…[that they are] fulfilling the quid pro quo they made with the police officers association, period.
“These electeds have no remorse and no fear for the law.”
He has claimed for weeks that the police union promised to support council candidates only if they agreed to fire Cavazos and Rojas.
Tinajero also said Tuesday that Pulido knew he, Benavides and Sarmiento were all out of town and couldn’t attend Wednesday’s meeting, but refused to move it to next week when they will be back.
And it wasn’t just residents and activists who opposed Pulido’s move. Members of the city’s business community, including representatives of both of Downtown Santa Ana’s business promotion groups, also showed up to Wednesday’s meeting to argue against Cavazos’ ouster.
“This is a beautiful community, this is a beautiful city and there’s a lot of people working really hard to make this place great. But what comes out is all the fighting and the lack of agreement and the lack of ability to work together,” said Ryan Smolar, a consultant with the business advocacy group Downtown Inc.
“Many of the people I’m working with contacted me very concerned about how this meeting is being conducted and the way that this is being brought forth without the public trust and public knowledge of what’s really happening.”
Out of the 15 commenters, one spoke in favor of the action.
“I and many of my neighbors have been expressing concerns about many things we have seen going downhill in the city since the current city manager has been on board,” said a woman who identified herself as Cézanne. “And we’re concerned about his exorbitant salary as compared to city managers throughout the rest of the state, and seeing what we’ve been getting in return for that salary.”
Cavazos received $453,000 in total compensation from the city last year. And in January 2016, council members approved a $17,000 bonus. He receives more compensation than the top city administrator in Los Angeles, which has 11 times the population of Santa Ana, as well as San Diego, which has four times as many residents.
Activists tried to appeal to Martinez, who in the past has aligned with community activist groups. Hugo Muñoz reminded Martinez and Solorio that he worked to help them get elected.
“I have campaigned for both of you, and I think it’s a shame that we’re having this conversation. And I really look forward to both of you either abstaining or voting against this today,” he said.
But it should be noted that Martinez is no friend of Cavazos, especially after he accused her of sexual harassment in 2014, a charge that independent investigators found to be without merit.
In the aftermath of the vote, there was confusion over who would be in charge of City Hall’s day-to-day business. No announcement was made at the meeting regarding who would become acting city manager.
Asked just after the meeting who was in charge, Rojas, the police chief, said he had “no idea.”
When reached by phone a couple hours after the vote, Deputy City Manager Robert Cortez confirmed he was serving as the acting city manager and that it’s up to the council to decide who will fill that slot in the long term.
After the meeting, activists gathered outside the council chambers to chant in English and Spanish, including “No more corruption!” and “What do we want? Transparency! When do we want it? Now!”
The next regular council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 17.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.