The extent to which last week’s surprise ouster of Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos ends up shifting the City Council's power dynamics will likely depend on the motivations of one person.
Will Councilwoman Michele Martinez ultimately side with the previous council majority she joined more than four years ago to loosen Mayor Miguel Pulido's hold on City Hall -- or will she continue to align, as she did last week, with Pulido and his newly constituted block that was heavily backed by the city’s police union in the November election?
The answer to this question, which could have a lasting effect on how the city serves its residents, isn't yet known as Martinez has sent conflicting messages from the council dais and steered clear of public statements.
But she will almost certainly have to show her hand on Jan. 17, when the council is scheduled to vote on two proposals by Cavazos to direct millions of dollars to adding park space and beefing up health and education programs for youth.
Specifically, Cavazos proposed a $9.1 million spending plan from what he described as a budget surplus, about a third of which focuses on developing park space or investing in law enforcement.
The other proposal is to award $500,000 in grants to local nonprofit groups to provide health and education-based services, such as youth sports and after-school tutoring programs. That grant effort, known as the “community enhancement program,” was supported by the prior council majority in September.
Both items were up for consideration on Dec. 20, but tabled after newly elected Councilman Jose Solorio suggested that the so-called surplus is actually based on keeping important city jobs vacant, including police officers.
“I think there’s the feeling that this high surplus is artificial, in that the city has dozens of positions not filled and showing up as surpluses when they really may need to be related to vacancies that should be filled,” Solorio said in an interview this week.
He also noted that the city’s labor negotiations, including with the police union, are about to start, "so it may be premature to allocate dollars that may or may not be part of a surplus.”
A Long Budget Battle
The twin proposals cut to the heart of the years-long battle for control over the city’s purse strings. A central effort of the previous council majority, established after the 2012 election, was to balance new city investments between police, infrastructure, and expanding youth opportunities.
More than 77 percent of the city’s operating budget has historically been dedicated to police and fire services, with relatively little focus on prevention programs for youth in the city’s underserved neighborhoods.
The 2013 firing of City Manager Paul Walters, who for 25 years had been the police chief, along with the hiring of Cavazos were seen as steps toward changing that dynamic.
In his previous post as the city manager in Phoenix, Cavazos had demonstrated a willingness to take bold steps – which some described as reckless – to remake the budget. And throughout his tenure in Santa Ana he has focused on building up revenue streams and abiding by the former majority’s wishes to direct more money to neighborhood programs.
In 2015, for example, the council approved an $11-million “surplus” spending package he presented, which focused on badly needed maintenance for parks, IT equipment, vehicles, as well as homeless services.
But this has been done at the expense of the police department. Police union officials point to dozens of vacant officer positions and say failing to fill them has led to a spike in violent crime and long wait times for responses to 911 calls. Santa Ana has experienced a 46 percent increase in the violent crime rate since 2013, according to police department statistics reported to the FBI.
And the union had an ally in Pulido, who for years has sided against Cavazos.
The union spent more than $250,000 on Pulido’s reelection and the elections of Solorio and Councilman Juan Villegas -- who defeated Roman Reyna, a key member of the previous council majority. The union-backed candidates made it clear during the election that they’d emphasize hiring additional police officers and giving raises to those already on the force.
Leading up to the election, the mayor said his “top priority” would be growing the number of city employees, and supported dipping into the city’s rainy-day reserves to hire more officers.
The move against Cavazos was seen as a major step towards bringing City Hall back under Pulido’s influence. Meanwhile, the members of the previous majority – Sal Tinajero, David Benavides, and Vincente Sarmiento – have ramped up their rhetoric, and sought Martinez’s support, to keep Pulido from accomplishing his goal.
With the help of immigration and public health activists, they had appeared to have succeeded in beating the mayor’s team back during the Dec. 20 council meeting, the last regularly scheduled meeting of the year. The closed-session agenda included a performance evaluation for Cavazos.
It has since become clear that Pulido intended to use an ongoing romantic relationship Cavazos has had with a female city employee as the impetus for his ouster. The city charter requires five votes for the council to fire the city manager, but only four to put him on leave. While getting five votes seems out of the question for Pulido, four were possible given Martinez’s fraught history with Cavazos.
While Martinez was initially supportive of Cavazos, their relationship soured after he accused Martinez of sexual harassment. A city-commissioned investigation later found Cavazos’ story had no merit and that Martinez had no romantic interest in the city manager.
But the damage was done, say sources close to City Hall. Cavazos had gained an adversary, and Pulido an ally.
Yet Martinez apparently wasn't ready to oust Cavazos at the Dec. 20 meeting. In addition to intense lobbying from Tinajero, Benavides and Sarmiento, she faced a council chambers full of residents and activists who view his removal as part of a police union takeover of City Hall.
But then, during the holiday week, when the trio supporting Cavazos was out of town, Pulido convened a special meeting with only Martinez, Solorio, Villegas and himself in attendance. The four members – the bare minimum needed for a quorum – voted to put Cavazos on leave.
The brazen move elicited howls of protest from the pro-Cavazos block as well as from neighborhood activists who called Pulido a “dictator” during the public comment period of the special meeting. The move was also opposed by the president of the city's chamber of commerce, and local developer Ryan Chase. Pulido, Martinez and Villegas quickly left the meeting out of a side door, and have not returned calls for comment.
Payback for Police Union?
Now Benavides, Tinajero and Sarmiento fear that the progress they’ve made toward directing more budget dollars to neighborhoods could be undone. And they say it would be reckless to devote the surplus Cavazos identified, as well as rainy-day funds, to an ongoing increase in employee payroll.
“You don’t fund positions on one-time dollars. It’s irresponsible to do that,” Benavides said. The city has to have “sustainable resources” when it creates positions, he added.
And he discounts criticisms that not enough is being done to fill police positions, saying the number of hires in the past year are “exponentially higher” than in years’ past and is “significantly” more than the number of officers who have retired.
“We have started to place a lot of emphasis on community programs, on quality dignified affordable housing” and other “quality-of-life” investments like parks, youth sports, and business development, Benavides said. “There’s a concern that the focus will go towards writing blank checks to…the police union at the expense of these other quality-of-life areas of investment that we’ve been building into.”
Tinajero was blunter in his comments.
“The [surplus] money most definitely will be shifted to the police officers’ association, and they will get everything that was promised prior to the election – at the expense of our youth, at the expense of our streets, and the expense of our infrastructure,” he said.
Solorio, meanwhile, rejects such concerns, saying he will support investments in youth and infrastructure, in addition to law enforcement.
“I want to see a budget that’s reflective of the needs of our community, and I think that includes a need to focus on youth services, crime prevention services, and infrastructure improvements.”
The Jan. 17 meeting is expected to draw a large turnout, as activists who mobilized dozens of people to attend the Dec. 20 council meeting have vowed to stay engaged.
“If the last couple of council meetings are any indicator, the community is not going to sit still and be idle in what Miguel is trying to do,” Benavides said.
On the other side, Pulido has support from a number of residents who strongly oppose Tinajero, Benavides, and Sarmiento. They haven’t spoken recently at council meetings, but did file a city ethics complaint against Tinajero over his public claims of bribery and corruption between the police union and the council members they supported.
Meanwhile, administration of the city will be handled by Gerardo Mouet, who was appointed as acting city manager last Thursday by Cavazos’ second-in-command, Deputy City Manager Robert Cortez.
Mouet, who has been the city’s parks and recreation director for the past 12 years, has worked at the city the longest among senior executives. In an interview on Wednesday, he emphasized a desire to keep open communication with his elected bosses and community members.
“There are some hurt feelings out there in the community, and it’s my job to listen to everyone,” and to make sure they understand that “the city government is the people’s corporation; it’s there to serve the people,” Mouet said.
Voters elected six council members and a mayor “to point the direction,” he said, and for now he’s the top administrator to make sure the city functions well and in an “extremely ethical” manner.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.