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2017 was a year full of divided – and deeply personal – actions on the Santa Ana City Council, affecting everything from police officer discipline to who runs the city on a day to day basis.
Here’s a rundown of 2017’s major stories in Santa Ana:
Santa Ana City Manager and Police Chief Resigned Amid Ouster Efforts
After months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido and his colleagues backed by the police union succeeded in January, 2017 in ousting former City Manager David Cavazos.
And in April, Police Chief Carlos Rojas resigned under pressure, announcing he had taken a job as police chief of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, known as BART.
The police union had been highly critical of Cavazos and Rojas as Rojas cracked down on police misconduct and dozens of officer positions remained vacant. Cavazos also drew controversy for dating a subordinate city employee.
Cavazos and Rojas’ supporters on the council alleged wrongdoing by the union, with Councilman Sal Tinajero claiming the union made candidates agree to fire Cavazos and Rojas in exchange for campaign support totaling $400,000 in the 2016 election. That claim has been disputed by the union’s president, Gerry Serrano.
In September, Rojas filed a lawsuit against the city alleging he was forced to resign after whistleblowing and as part of a concerted effort by the mayor and police union president to push him out.
In his suit, Rojas claimed he reported a number of alleged illegal activities by Pulido, including claims the mayor “was taking money from medical marijuana dispensary operators so they could continue to do business illegally in the [city].”
Rojas also claims to have “engendered the wrath” of the city’s police union, specifically Serrano, for cracking down on officer misbehavior and disciplining police officers who violated the law while at work.
Serrano and Pulido denied the claims. The lawsuit still is in its early stages and could lead to depositions of city officials under oath if a judge allows it to move forward and Rojas doesn’t settle.
New City Manager Hired On a Divided Vote
In October, a split City Council hired a new city manager, Raul Godinez, with a generous compensation package of nearly $500,000 per year, which makes him the second highest-paid city manager in California.
The narrow 4-3 vote for his contract highlighted the deeply divided nature of the council this year.
“This is probably the most political and divisive city council Santa Ana has had,” Councilwoman Michele Martinez said as the council debated the appointment. “We really don’t like one another, and we really don’t trust one another.”
None of the other council members voiced disagreement.
Pulido and his strongest allies on the council voted against Godinez’ contract, and backed a different candidate: Kristine Ridge, who was Anaheim’s assistant city manager at the time and has since been hired as Laguna Niguel’s city manager.
City Facing Budget Shortfalls, and Approves Raises
Santa Ana is facing an upside-down budget, even in the current period of economic growth, and the latest projection had the city spending $600,000 more than it expects to make this fiscal year. The situation is expected to worsen as employee pension costs continue to skyrocket.
Amid those shortfalls, the City Council approved millions of dollars in raises for employees, with police officers receiving the most generous increases.
In July, the City Council approved raises between 5.6 percent to 10.6 percent for police officers and sergeants, at an estimated cost to city taxpayers of $2.7 million per year.
Before the new labor contract, the median total compensation for a Santa Ana officer was about $213,000 per year, including $111,000 in pay before overtime and $88,000 in benefits.
In December, the council approved another raise, totaling $1.5 million, for the city’s rank-and-file workers who don’t work for the police department.
Debate Over Whether to Bring Back Police Officer Fired Over Pot Shop Raid
A split Santa Ana City Council voted 4-to-3 in February to ask a court to block the reinstatement of a police officer who was fired after allegedly committing crimes during a raid of a local pot shop. He later pled guilty.
Prosecutors said during the May 2015 raid of Sky High Holistic, Officer Brandon Sontag stole food from the shop and destroyed security cameras by smashing them on a display case and cash register.
County prosecutors charged Sontag with vandalism and petty theft, and he was fired by Rojas. But he appealed his firing to the city’s personnel board, which voted to undo the termination and bring him back to the force with a retroactive seven-week suspension.
Two other officers from the raid, Nichole Quijas and Jorge Arroyo, were also charged criminally and fired, and appealed their firings. The police union said Rojas acted unfairly in disciplining these officers while not punishing their supervisors.
Sontag ultimately won a court order directing the city to bring him back on the force, and the other two officers got their jobs back. All three ended up pleading guilty to committing misdemeanor crimes in the pot shop raid, and were sentenced to fines and community service.
Trash Contract Controversy
The Santa Ana City Council has a decades-old pattern of not seeking competitive bids for its home and business trash collection contract, which is one of the city’s most lucrative agreements. And in December, the council voted to grant another extension for Waste Management, Inc.
The 1993 Waste Management, which originally was to expire in 1998, now will continue until 2020.
In addition, the city is charging residents millions of dollars in fees on trash bills and transferring the money to the city general fund, which pays for police and other services, according to Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who said it’s a violation of state law.
City Attorney Sonia Carvalho has acknowledged the city’s handling of the money presents “issues” under a state law banning the use of trash contract revenues for general government services.
A bidding process to select a new trash provider is scheduled to start this month.
Efforts to Switch to District Elections Fizzles
As cities across Orange County move toward district elections, some on the Santa Ana City Council said the city also should go in that direction to give grassroots candidates a better shot and lessen the influence of major campaign donors like the police union.
Others on the council, who were backed by the police union in the 2016 election, said district elections would lead to less representation because each voter would be limited to choosing a single council representative. The district election effort was shot down in January on a 4-to-2 vote.
Several community groups still wanted Santa Ana to switch to district elections, which would require voter approval through a ballot measure.
Supporters would need to gather over 10,000 valid signatures from Santa Ana registered voters to put district elections before voters. But the effort seems to have fizzled out, with no proposed ballot measure going into 2018.
Another attempt to get district elections approved came in June, when Vietnamese-American residents on the city’s west side sent demand letters to the city. Congressman Lou Correa also weighed in with a letter urging the council to move to district elections. That effort, too, appears to have gone nowhere, with no settlement announced.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.