A narrow majority of Santa Ana City Council members, who were defeated in their efforts to put district elections on the June ballot, voted Tuesday to start the process of having voters decide in November whether to change the City Council election system from at-large to district-based voting.
The council also may ask voters to change the city charter to add punishments for a mayor if he or she doesn’t sign ordinances and resolutions approved by a majority of the seven-member council.
In addition, council members voted to start the process of re-drawing the city’s existing districts, known as “wards,” in time for the November election. Currently candidates are grouped to run against each other based on which of the six wards they live in, but all city voters get to vote for candidates in all of the wards. The mayor, who is the seventh council member, does not run in a ward and can live anywhere in the city.
Superior Court Judge Glenn R. Salter ruled April 6 that Mayor Miguel Pulido should have signed City Council-passed resolutions that would have put the district election issue on the June ballot. Pulido did not have the authority to refuse to sign them, Salter determined, saying, “Mayor Pulido is acting as judge, jury and executioner.”
However, the city charter does not have a punishment for when a mayor refuses to sign council-approved ordinances or resolutions.
The mayor has said he didn’t sign them because he believed the council needed five votes to approve the resolutions. Lawsuits over that question are pending before Salter.
Some council members said they plan to make an election issue out of Pulido’s refusal to sign the documents that would have placed the district elections issue on the June ballot.
“What this mayor has done is stop democracy in Santa Ana…at the end of the day, that is what occurred,” said Councilman Sal Tinajero, who is running against Pulido for mayor in November and supported the June districting measure.
“We want to make sure that that…disgrace does not happen again,” Tinajero said. Regarding Pulido, he said: “He’s not going to win [re-election], because what he did was 100 percent wrong.”
Pulido was not present for Tuesday’s public discussion and decisions about district elections. He attended the council’s roughly three-hour closed session on other issues from about 5 p.m. to about 8:15 p.m., and left when the open meeting started because, he explained to the other council members in closed session, a family member was ill.
During public comments, Peter Katz, a longtime Santa Ana resident, thanked the mayor for saving the city the $202,000 it was estimated to have cost if district elections were put on the June ballot, as opposed to the $30,000 estimated cost of combining it with other ballot items if it’s on the November ballot.
Thomas Gordon, another longtime resident who also is on the county Republican Party’s governing committee, warned that some of the current council members shouldn’t be trusted with the re-drawing process.
During public comments, he said two members of the current council, who he did not name, re-drew the ward boundaries in 2012 in way that meant 27 percent of Asian voters “were excluded from voting” in Ward 6.
Turning around to Asian-American residents who attended the council meeting about the district elections item, Gordon told them council members who support the re-drawing process are “lying to you.”
Other public commenters criticized the mayor for blocking the June measure.
“I’m just really incredibly disappointed in Mayor Pulido acting like a dictator and…dragging his feet along with the special interests that obviously are backing him because they do not want to have their power be messed with – the status quo. And of course I’m talking about the Police Officers’ Association,” said Joesé Hernandez, a community organizer with Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, or OCCORD.
Public commenters on all sides of the issue urged the council to have an open, transparent process for choosing the new district lines.
The council’s actions passed on a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Juan Villegas opposing and Councilwoman Michele Martinez not present, saying she had to leave the meeting to catch a flight.
Additionally, Villegas, who opposed the June measure, said he would be filing a request with the county District Attorney’s Office to investigate his colleagues for an alleged violation last month of the Ralph M. Brown Act, when they used a group text message to discuss what to do about the mayor’s refusal to sign the ballot resolutions.
“No one twisted anyone’s arm to write or type on the phone…All the members here have been in politics for well over 10 years. And we should know better,” Villegas said at Tuesday’s meeting
“I will be sending this for review to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office special prosecution unit, so they can look at it and they can determine if a Brown Act violation happened or not. ‘Cause that’s what happened.”
City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said she didn’t believe the text chain violated the Brown Act because the meeting they were planning was canceled and no more than three council members discussed a specific action to take. The Brown Act prohibits a majority of City Council members from discussing policy actions outside of a meeting with advanced public notice.
Kelly Aviles, an attorney and expert on the Brown Act who also is Voice of OC’s chief litigator, reviewed the group text messages last month and said their discussion of specific possible actions violated the Brown Act.
The leader of the DA’s investigations bureau is Paul Walters, a longtime former Santa Ana police chief who has been close to Pulido. Walters was the city manager from 2011 until early 2013, when he was pushed out by Tinajero and other current council members as part of an apparent effort to undercut Pulido’s influence at City Hall.
Tinajero pushed back Tuesday, telling Villegas if he reports the text messages to the DA he should also report an alleged Brown Act violation by the mayor that’s on video.
“I would also ask that you – since you’re gonna go that route – that you also make a report based upon the mayor, when he violated the Brown Act – and it was on the Voice of OC on tape. And he was sharing information that was coming out of our closed session,” Tinajero said.
He later confirmed he was referring to a video of Pulido speaking publicly to supporters in January 2013 to announce the other council members, in closed session, were firing Walters.
“I wasn’t here during that time,” Villegas told Tinajero in response. “I leave it up to you.”
“Okay, I’ll do that then,” Tinajero replied, regarding referring the Pulido recording to the DA’s office. “If you do that, I’ll do this too.”
Voter approval is not required to change the district boundaries, under the city charter. Instead, it requires yes votes from five members of the council and must be done at least 120 days before the election. In this case, that deadline appears to be July 8.
Five public hearings – three required by state law and two in the city charter – must be held as part of the district re-drawing process, according to city staff.
The charter requires the City Council to hold a meeting at a “convenient day, hour and place,” with at least two weeks’ notice in the newspaper, for members of the public to speak to the council about the proposed district line changes. Additionally, state law requires three public hearings, City Clerk Maria Huizar said at Tuesday’s meeting.
People close to City Hall consider Martinez the most likely council member to supply a fifth vote to change the district lines. But she has said she would only support district elections if her colleagues also ask voters to make serving on the City Council a full time job. She wants the council to have full-time salaries and a budget for council members to have their own staff – something her colleagues so far have not supported.
The council did not say when they would hold the hearings required for the ballot measure and district map changes. The issue likely will be discussed at future City Council meetings. The next one is scheduled for Tuesday, May 1.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].