City Manager ‘Dismissal’ Now On Santa Ana Council Agenda

David Senner for Voice of OC

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido (left) and City Manager David Cavazos.

Tuesday’s Santa Ana City Council meeting is shaping up to be another barn burner, with what appears to be a newly formed council majority taking additional steps towards removing City Manager David Cavazos.

During the meeting’s closed-session, council members will discuss and possibly take action on Cavazos’ “discipline, or dismissal/release,” according to the meeting agenda. Meanwhile, neighborhood activists are planning to turn out to the meeting and protest the ouster.

It is the first meeting since Mayor Miguel Pulido and his allies succeeded in getting Cavazos put on paid leave by scheduling an emergency meeting, with just 24-hours’ notice, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day when the city manager’s supporters on the council were out of town.

The week before, at the last regularly scheduled meeting of the year, Pulido had failed to get the necessary four-vote majority to place Cavazos on leave as dozens of residents showed up to protest the move.

The official reason for the action against Cavazos has to do with his ongoing relationship with a city employee, which he started a year before disclosing it to the council in August 2015. But to many who observe Santa Ana politics, Cavazos’ ouster has much more to do with the mayor re-asserting his power at City Hall, and for Pulido and new council members to deliver on an election-year debt to the union, which spent over $250,000 helping their elections.

Lined up with Pulido against Cavazos are new councilmen Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas, while councilmen Sal Tinajero, David Benavides and Vincente Sarmiento have supported the city manager. Councilwoman Michele Martinez was seen as a possible swing vote – she sided with Tinajero, Benavides and Sarmiento in the previous council majority – but ultimately joined the 4-0 vote to oust Cavazos at the holiday-week meeting.

Resignation Possible

While it only takes a simple majority of four votes to put the city manager on leave, the city charter requires a five-vote supermajority to fire him. But despite the word “dismissal” being on the agenda for the first time, Benavides said he doesn’t think Pulido and his allies have the five votes.

“There continues to be a need to bring stability to the city, and I hope that the community will continue to voice their concerns over the abrupt decisions that Miguel and his allies have brought that have caused instability,” Benavides said in an interview Friday. He emphasized “the calls of the residents and the business community to bring the city manager back.”

However, while Benavides and Tinajero appear to remain steadfast in their support of Cavazos, Sarmiento seems to be wavering. In his most recent comments to a reporter, Sarmiento did not offer his support for the city manager and painted a scenario that suggests a resignation is in the offing.

“I don’t expect the City Council will have an opportunity to deliberate on terminating the City Manager.  I speculate the City Manager already understands that it will be extremely difficult to perform his expected scope of work, or carry out his vision and agenda for the City when a majority of the Council is poised in opposition,” Sarmiento said in an email Saturday to a Voice of OC reporter.

Cavazos’ contract allows him to resign with 60 days’ advanced notice, though the council can waive the notice requirement. Cavazos didn’t return an email and text message asking if he plans to resign. A call to his cell phone went straight to voicemail, but the mailbox was full and not accepting messages.

Pulido, Martinez, Solorio and Villegas have so far declined to publicly speak about their moves against the city manager. 

Regardless of what happens, the council will surely hear from residents who are angry about the post-election power grab and Pulido’s intentions to steer more budget spending to police and away from rainy-day reserve funds, youth programs and other community initiatives. Some who showed up to the emergency holiday-week meeting called Pulido a “dictator,” among other things.

“The spirit of dialogue that’s been opened up for the last several years between community groups and the city” is being undermined by this action, said Luis Sarmiento, an activist with El Centro Cultural de México and the Equity for All initiative of Santa Ana Building Health Communities.

Sarmiento, who is not related to the councilman, added that the activist groups are insisting that dialogue remain open on issues like affordable housing, recreational open space, and youth programs.

Several residents, who disagree with the prior council majority, support ousting Cavazos, though they have largely refrained from commenting publicly. Only one supporter of the move has spoken about it at recent council meetings, saying the city has been “going downhill” under Cavazos while he receives over $450,000 per year in salary and benefits.

Activists who oppose Cavazos’ ouster say they plan to show up in force to Tuesday’s meeting. And the city manager situation is just one of several crucial issues on the agenda.

Another is a proposal to for a ballot measure that would ask city voters whether they support changing the city’s election system to district-based voting.

That effort has been led by Tinajero, who has touted it as a way of empowering grassroots candidates and lessening the power of moneyed interests in politics. Depending on how the measure is worded, it could also allow Tinajero and other termed-out council members to run for re-election. It’s unclear if the effort has support from a majority of the newly-formed council.

The council is also in the midst of considering what to do with $9.6 million in budget allocations Cavazos requested last month, including for parks and youth programs. Acting City Manager Gerardo Mouet is proposing to again postpone the items, this time to February, amid a desire among some of the new council members to keep the money in the bank to help fill vacant city jobs.

Finally, it will be the last meeting before Donald Trump is sworn in as president, and council members are slated to give final approval to the city’s sanctuary city ordinance.

The meeting starts at 5 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.

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