Divided Santa Ana Council Gets Personal While Appointing New City Manager

City of Lynwood

Raul Godinez was chosen as the next city manager of Santa Ana.

A deeply divided Santa Ana City Council has narrowly appointed a new city manager and approved a compensation package worth nearly $500,000 per year, but the action highlighted personality conflicts among council members.

“This is probably the most political and divisive city council Santa Ana has had,” Councilwoman Michele Martinez said as the council debated the appointment. “Let’s be honest with each other. We really don’t like one another, and we really don’t trust one another.”

None of the other council members disagreed with her.

Raul Godinez, a former Santa Ana public works director who currently is the public works director of the much smaller city of Lynwood, was appointed Tuesday night  on a 4-3 vote with support from a group of council members who often are at odds with Mayor Miguel Pulido.

Pulido and his strongest allies on the council had backed a different candidate – Kristine Ridge, who serves as Anaheim’s assistant city manager – and voted against Godinez’ appointment and contract.

The new city manager will walk into a bitterly split City Council at a crossroads over major issues like police compensation, skyrocketing retirement costs, a severe shortage of open space for young people, an affordable housing crisis, homelessness, and how to hold police officers accountable.

The council members who appointed Godinez were Martinez, Sal Tinajero, Vicente Sarmiento, and David Benavides. The group has clashed not only with Pulido but also prominently with the president of the Santa Ana police officers’ union.

Voting against Godinez’ appointment and contract were Pulido, Jose Solorio, and Juan Villegas.

The new city manager will go from managing a few dozen employees in Lynwood to leading the more than 1,400 employees in Santa Ana, which has a $510 million total budget.

Santa Ana is home to about 341,000 people, about five times larger than Lynwood's population of 72,000.

Under his new contract, Godinez will receive a $285,000 salary, plus an estimated $204,000 in benefits, totaling $489,000 in annual compensation.

That would make Godinez the second highest-compensated city manager in the state of California, ahead of larger cities like Anaheim (population 351,000), Long Beach (pop. 480,000), Sacramento (pop. 493,000), and Fresno (pop. 526,000), according to public data posted online by Transparent California.

Some of the state's largest cities, like Los Angeles and San Diego, don't have appointed city managers.

Godinez’ contract also forbids the City Council from firing him during the six months before or six months after elections in which council members are chosen. And if the council does fire him outside of that timeframe, Godinez is entitled to one-year’s severance totaling $489,000.

Solorio called the compensation “excessive,” while Pulido described the severance as a “golden parachute that we’re giving this…gentleman.”

Godinez’ supporters described the compensation as on par with what other cities pay their top executives. Tinajero said it was “was pretty standard for a city our size, to have that type of compensation package.”

Councilman David Benavides said the compensation is “not too far off” from what other city managers and school district superintendents make at large organizations. He cited Santa Ana Unified School District, which directly paid its superintendent $256,000 last year, with a total compensation package of $313,000. The package awarded to Godinez is worth $176,000 more per year.

Godinez’ supporters on the council said he has strong skills to stabilize the city workforce amid a turbulent time at the city.

“I do feel very confident that [Godinez] does have not only a lot of that municipal background, but also has the character and the personality to be able to lead, to lead well,” said Benavides. “And I’m looking forward to having him join the team here.”

Pulido and Villegas, meanwhile, said Godinez isn’t qualified enough for the job.

“He’s a nice guy…But you have to ask yourself, why is he the public works director from Lynwood at this time?” Pulido said. “It’s not [a] comparable job to the city of Santa Ana city manager…I have a problem with it.”

Villegas said: “At this moment, I believe that there’s other candidates more qualified than this, that are experienced more with development and economic development, and know how to deal with the homeless situation that we have here in the city that is so important. So I’m not supportive of this.”

Solorio said he supports Godinez for the city manager position – and said they successfully worked together when Solorio was a state assemblyman – but that he can’t support the contract terms.

“I believe he’s a good candidate, but the salary is excessive,” Solorio said.

Tinajero interjected from the other side of the council dais: “Yeah, but you didn’t mind paying off a severance to our last city manager. It didn’t bother you that it was taxpayer’s money.” He was referring to Solorio’s vote earlier this year for a severance of over $343,000 to oust the prior city manager, David Cavazos.

Solorio shot back: “[Cavazos] resigned. He left.”

Pulido emphasized the council would not be able to fire Godinez within six months of an election, and that he’d receive a one-year severance if fired at a time the council is allowed to fire him.

Tinajero again interrupted. “I would have asked for the same thing, comin’ to this city,” he said.

The council members who succeeded with their city manager pick called on the others to give Godinez a chance to succeed.

Sarmiento, speaking to Pulido and those who voted against Godinez, said: “I think all of us need to grow up, and realize that if there’s been problems in the past, we need to just put those aside, and work towards…betterment of the city”

Benavides said he hopes the council members who opposed Godinez’ appointment don’t “pout” and make things difficult for the new city manager, which he said would harm the public.

He added, regarding the council members who opposed Godinez’ appointment: “I hope that we choose maturity.”

Staff writer Spencer Custodio contributed to this article.

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