Santa Ana City Hall experienced another high-profile ousting Monday evening, with a narrow majority of the City Council immediately removing the acting city manager, Gerardo Mouet, as he prepared to choose an acting police chief.
The decision came on a 4-3 vote the day before Mouet was to announce his process for choosing an acting police chief, following Chief Carlos Rojas’ announcement last week that he’s leaving the city for a different police chief job. The selection of an acting police chief is up to the acting city manager.
The votes to oust Mouet, and return him to being parks and recreation director, came from the four council members who have been outspoken supporters of Rojas and have taken high-profile positions lately on the opposite side of the city’s police union. Those positions included rejecting efforts to revive the city’s jail contract with immigration authorities and trying to overturn the re-instatement of an officer Rojas fired for alleged criminal misconduct during the raid of a marijuana dispensary.
The four council members – Michele Martinez, Sal Tinajero, Vicente Sarmiento, and David Benavides – scheduled Monday’s special meeting about Mouet just hours after Rojas announced his resignation last Thursday.
When Rojas announced he was leaving as police chief, “many on the council took a step back and looked at the fact that we have some serious issues coming before us,” Tinajero said in an interview Monday night after joining the vote to remove Mouet.
“Number 1 is the selection of a new chief. Number 2, the stabilization of our budget. Number 3, our employee negotiations. And [number] 4, finding a permanent city manager. So that’s a large order to tackle…and we thought that we wanted to go fly this position and go for a statewide search for a new city manager,” he continued.
“And the best possible scenario was to find a person who had experience in the interim to guide us through these very difficult decisions. In the meantime, [we] have Gerardo remove himself and go back as…director of parks and [recreation], and give him an opportunity to be able to apply” to the permanent city manager permanently.”
After hearing public comments just after 5 p.m., the council went into closed session for nearly two hours under a single agenda item about Mouet’s performance and position as acting city manager.
When they emerged, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho announced the narrow vote to remove Mouet as chief executive and return him to being the parks and recreation director. Mayor Miguel Pulido and council members Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas voted against removing Mouet.
The council unanimously directed the start of a statewide search for an interim city manager, and scheduled another meeting for next Monday at 5 p.m. to consider external candidates.
In the meantime, the deputy city manager, Robert Cortez, will serve as acting city manager.
“My wish is for this city to be stable…fiscally, to do good services, to fix problems, to focus on things,” Mouet told reporters after the vote.
He said he held a meeting with city executives all morning Monday on the budget and gang violence. And Mouet said he had been planning to announce an open process Tuesday for selecting an acting police chief.
“I do believe in a democracy, and four [council members] wanted to go in this direction, and four is enough. That’s the way it works. And so I respect democracy. There’s no better system than that.
“Is it disappointing? …Sure it’s disappointing. I mean, I can’t hide that. I said it to them, it’s disappointing. But, it is what it is.”
“Gerardo has done an excellent job in every City position he has held. We know he will keep working hard for the City and I know that he will accomplish many more things for our community in the years to come,” Solorio said in a statement.
Council members left the room right after the meeting without talking to reporters. Mayor Miguel Pulido declined to comment when reached by phone Monday night, saying he needed more time to think before speaking publicly.
The move marks the third high-profile departure of a top Santa Ana official since December. Near the end of that month, Pulido, Solorio, Villegas, and Martinez voted to oust City Manager David Cavazos, and Mouet took over as acting city manager the following day. And last week, Rojas announced he was leaving Santa Ana to become police chief of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in the San Francisco area.
Before council members went into closed session, three public commenters spoke, all urging the council to ensure the acting and permanent police chief are independent of special interests.
Albert Castillo, an activist with Chicano Unidos, said he would like to see the chief be someone “from the outside” who “does not have ties to” the police union.
After public comments ended and council members were leaving the room for their closed session, Solorio walked up to Castillo in the back of the council chambers to show support for his remarks and including the public in the police chief selection process.
“Good comments,” Solorio told Castillo. “I agree, I want to find a way [for the] community to be involved in the process.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.