Santa Ana Mayor Calls Emergency Meeting on Police Chief Search and Housing Projects

NICK GERDA, Voice of OC

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido at a council meeting.

With just 24-hours’ notice, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido called an emergency City Council meeting for Thursday to discuss the search for a new police chief, decide on millions of dollars for specific affordable housing projects, and talk about police salary negotiations.

And his move is prompting claims of wrongdoing from one of his colleagues.

The agenda for the meeting, which is scheduled for 1:30 p.m., was distributed by email at exactly 1:29 p.m. Wednesday, one minute more public notice than the minimum 24-hours required by state law.

It’s unclear why Pulido wants the issues dealt with before the next regular council meeting, which is this Tuesday.

Councilwoman Michelle Martinez, meanwhile, was furious about the meeting. She said it’s being done in a way that excludes people from participating.

“This to me looks like council members have cut deals and [are] not being transparent,” said Martinez, who added she can’t attend because of a commitment to attend a meeting of the Southern California Association of Governments.

“Why do you have to have a special meeting to have a discussion about negotiations with police, or about the process for [choosing a new police chief]? Why is that so urgent? …I don’t understand, when we’re having a meeting next Tuesday? What’s the urgency? [Because] somebody can’t be in attendance? I don’t get it.”

She went on to say the circumstances lead her to suspect some of her colleagues have engaged in illegal vote-trading.

“I haven’t been involved in their conversations, but it just smells ugly, and it’s just corrupt, it’s wrong on so many levels. The attorney general needs [to] look at Santa Ana.”

“I can’t prove anything, I’m not there [in the discussions]. But…this is like influence peddling. I mean, you’re trading votes. And it’s not done in the public eye. That’s not legal. And that’s been the culture of Santa Ana for a long time, and this has gotten uglier.”

In a follow-up conversation, Martinez added: “The mayor was adamantly opposed to some of these housing projects that are before us…and we’ll see where he stands tomorrow.”

She also posted on her Facebook page about the meeting: “Vote swapping is a serious crime, punishable under the state Penal Code by a prison term of two to four years and fines of $2,000 to $10,000.”

Pulido didn’t respond to a request for comment on Martinez’ claims and why he called the special meeting.  The rest of the City Council either didn’t return phone messages or said they were unavailable to comment.

As the presiding officer, state law allows the mayor to call special meetings for “any reason at all,” said Terry Francke, an expert on California open-meetings laws. The Ralph M. Brown Act requires the public receive at least 24 hours’ notice of such meetings.

Pulido called the emergency meeting to discuss affordable housing projects, police union negotiations, and the recruitment process to replace former Police Chief Carlos Rojas, according to city staff.

The official agenda has two closed session items: the police negotiations and a performance evaluation of new Interim City Manager Cynthia Kurtz, who oversees the police chief position.

After the closed session is an open-session discussion and decisions on major funding for four affordable housing projects:

  • awarding $8.8 million to AMCAL Multi-Housing for the First Street Apartments project,
  • awarding an additional $2.9 million to Meta Housing Corporation for the Santa Ana Arts Collective project,
  • adding 31 housing vouchers to Community Development Partners for the Aqua Housing project, and
  • committing $11.7 million to Community Development Partners for the Tiny Tim Plaza project.

Council members also are slated to vote on whether to “direct staff to develop a policy and criteria for the allocation of future affordable housing development funds.”

Councilman Vicente Sarmiento, who typically sides with Martinez and against Pulido on key police-related decisions, has been a vocal supporter of the AMCAL housing project, which would create 69 affordable apartments for low-income households.

Pulido was a deciding vote against a funding agreement for the AMCAL project in February, but scheduled a vote for Thursday on awarding $8.8 million to the project.

Sarmiento texted this reporter that he wasn’t available to comment on the special meeting and Martinez’ claims, because he was at his son’s graduation.

Pulido also called an emergency meeting on short notice in December, in which he and Martinez joined a narrow vote to oust then-City Manager David Cavazos. Pulido called the meeting during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, at a time when Cavazos’ council supporters said they were out of town.

And that same month, the mayor nominated Martinez as mayor pro tempore – essentially the vice-mayor of the city, who presides over council meetings when the mayor is absent. But their relationship has soured since then.

Meanwhile, the interim city manager says she prefers to make only temporary appointments to top-level city positions, such as the police chief, until a permanent city manager can oversee the permanent selection process.

Kurtz, who was the city manager of Pasadena before retiring, said her recommendation to the council is that she “do nothing to fill positions permanently.”

She noted that the city has vacancies in the permanent positions for police chief and Community Development Agency director, and that Hassan Haghani, director of the city’s Planning and Building Agency, has taken a job with the city of Ontario.

“We are going to have to be making some decisions,” Kurtz said.

Thursday’s special meeting starts at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the City Council chambers next to City Hall. Public comments will be heard at the beginning of the meeting.

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