The ouster earlier this month of Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos showed Mayor Miguel Pulido is back in a dominant position on the City Council. And the city’s police union – due in large part to heavy spending in the November election – is enjoying a level of influence on the dais it hasn’t had in years.
This new political reality will almost certainly impact the governing of the city -- from how the police department is managed to how budget dollars are allocated and the kind of leader the city will have atop its bureaucracy.
Already, we’re seeing signs of what is to come as a Cavazos' proposal to invest in youth programs and parks was postponed from the Dec. 20 council meeting to January and then again to February.
Meanwhile, council members, with Councilman Jose Solorio being the most vocal, are saying those dollars should be saved to hire more police, and are publicly voicing their displeasure with Police Chief Carlos Rojas. And it’s looking like interim City Manager Gerardo Mouet will get an extended tryout for the permanent job.
Here’s a more detailed look at how things are playing out:
Police Discipline and Leadership
Few issues generate more passion – and headlines – in urban communities than crime and police-resident relations. And a few high-profile incidents of police misconduct in Santa Ana in recent years contributed to Rojas cracking down on officer behavior.
In June 2014, video from a home security camera showed at least three Santa Ana police officers beating a man during his arrest in the central Heninger Park neighborhood. The man, Edgar Vargas, appeared to be complying with officers’ directions to lay on the ground when an officer began punching him and other hitting him with a baton.
The incident led to a federal investigation that at one point declared the officers used excessive force and committed “felonious assault,” though no charges have been filed against the officers.
Then, in May 2015, a now-infamous video captured officers raiding the Sky High Holistic pot shop, destroying camera equipment, joking about kicking a disabled shop volunteer in her amputated leg, and eating snacks from the shop. Three of the officers were charged with crimes related to the raid and were fired, and the city agreed to pay the shop volunteers a $100,000 settlement.
In addition to harsher discipline, Rojas implemented a new beat system that he hoped would lead to officers developing better relations with the community. But many officers hate it, and their union chief said it causes longer response times to 9-1-1 calls for service.
Union head Gerry Serrano hasn’t held back in his public criticism of Rojas, saying among other things that the chief has overstepped his discipline authority and ignored a spike in crime and hours-long response times.
The stance from the union, along with the new dynamic on council, has some council members and advocates worried that the reforms of the last few years will be rolled back.
Councilman Sal Tinajero, a longtime Rojas supporter, says the police union-backed council members are trying to oust the chief and install someone who will work “hand-in-hand” with the union.
“I think they are going to bring in somebody that is not going to hold [officers] accountable,” Tinajero said. “Our community is demanding accountability. They’re demanding transparency.”
Meanwhile, the union-backed council members have not disputed Tinajero’s repeated claims during council meetings that they are angling to oust Rojas.
When asked in an interview whether Rojas will be ousted, Solorio paused for several seconds, before answering that he has “deep concerns” about the chief.
“I have a lot of concerns with lack of attention in dealing with our crime spike, and in the inability to restore the size of our police department, even though there have been representations that it has been increasing,” Solorio said.
But Solorio says he's committed to officer accountability and supports Rojas' efforts on that front. He said the approach to discipline “has been appropriate” and “should always be continued.”
Civil rights advocates, meanwhile, say the department still has a long way to go on the path to community policing.
Officers continue to use a “heavy handed law enforcement approach when dealing with the city's most vulnerable residents,” said Eve Garrow, a homelessness policy advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. She pointed to “confrontational” approaches by police like the one that led to last year’s shooting death of Richard Swihart in the Santa Ana Civic Center.
Any effort to oust Rojas would have to be done through Mouet, who oversees the police chief. Mouet said Monday that he hasn’t been asked to move toward removing Rojas, and is not “helping roll back anything with regards to [the police department].”
Calls and text messages to Pulido and council members Michele Martinez, David Benavides, Juan Villegas, and David Benavides were not returned.
There’s also talk that a recent emphasis on expanding parks and community programs will be scaled back in order to cover the costs of speeding up police hiring and increasing officer pay.
In 2015, Cavazos devoted $11 million in “surplus” funds to projects like park renovations, homeless services, and city infrastructure upgrades. He was set to do it again in December, with $2.6 million specifically for parks and $500,000 in grants to nonprofits for youth and community programs.
But that proposal could very well be dead. It’s been delayed twice under the new council, with Solorio saying the so-called “surplus” is artificial because it’s based on keeping city jobs – mostly in the police department – unfilled. Instead, he wants to save those funds and focus first on filling 124 vacant city jobs, 95 of which are in the police department.
“What I’m essentially saying is, let’s actually fill those positions and put them in the areas where they are most needed by our neighborhoods,” like the gang unit, community-oriented policing program, and patrol cops, Solorio said.
Pulido has gone a step further, calling for dipping into the city’s rainy-day reserves to speed up hiring of more officers.
Tinajero says he supports hiring more officers, but that if the council increases costs too quickly, they would risk putting the city on course toward bankruptcy, a fate it narrowly avoided in 2011 and had to make drastic cuts to avoid.
“What I fear is that our city is going to engage in political favors, political paybacks for campaign contributions, which is going to raise police officers’ salaries” and pensions significantly and “deplete our reserve,” Tinajero said.
Instead, Tinajero is in favor of changing officers' work schedules from the current three days per week and 12 hours per day schedule, to five days a week and eight hours a day. Rojas has said that would more than double the number of cops on the street at a given time.
“I would still advocate to hire more police officers,” Tinajero said. “But we have a solution right now that would not cost taxpayers anything.”
But the union and its friendly council members do not support Tinajero's position, with Solorio saying it would hurt already-difficult recruitment efforts to hire officers; and harm the air quality by requiring officers drive more often to work.
Tinajero says the recruitment argument is ridiculous, claiming that the department recently attracted 1,000 applicants for 20 open officer positions.
Meanwhile, Councilman Vicente Sarmiento is a crucial swing vote on budget issues, and he's emphasizing the importance of keeping the city within its financial means.
One of Sarmiento's top priorities, he said, is making sure "that we remain real prudent and careful with our budgeting," especially given the possibility of losing federal funding for the city's sanctuary policies.
Who'll be City Manager
As the old saying goes, personnel is policy. And when it comes to Santa Ana, which like most California cities runs on a council-manager form of government, the city manager is the key to running the city.
Four years ago, when the prior council majority was searching for a new city manager after seizing power from Pulido, they chose an outsider in Cavazos.
The thinking was that people within the city’s executive ranks would be too beholden to Pulido and unwilling to oppose him. But Pulido wasted no time in seizing on his first opportunity to get rid of Cavazos
Yet there does seem to be support for conducting a nationwide search in which internal candidates could also apply. Three of the seven council members – Solorio, Tinajero, and Sarmiento – all say they want a national search.
But they seem in no hurry to begin the recruitment process, with Solorio wanting to wait until after the budget is passed in June.
Mouet is considered a possible candidate for the permanent job and the delay would allow him a trial period to prove himself to the new council.
For the time being, Mouet says he’s focused on “the big questions” council and community members have on issues like the budget, homelessness, public safety, and updating the city’s information technology.
“I’m having fun, what can I tell you,” he said.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.