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Two main groups of candidates are battling for control of Santa Ana City Hall in Tuesday’s election, pitting people backed by the police officers’ union against those backed by $170,000 from a secret source.

On one side are Mayor Miguel Pulido and City Council candidates Phil Bacerra, Mirna Velasquez, and David Penalosa – who are supported by the city police officers’ union, which is Santa Ana’s largest campaign spender. The union has spent over $450,000 supporting the candidates, mainly for advertisements, while it actively seeks a raise for officers at a time the city’s upside-down finances put it on a path to bankruptcy in a few years.

On the other side are Councilman Sal Tinajero, who’s challenging Pulido for mayor; along with council candidates Roman Reyna, Sandra “Pocha” Peña Sarmiento, and Nelida Mendoza. Three of them – Reyna, Tinajero, and Peña Sarmiento – have been supported by a secret donor or donors who routed $170,000 in dark money through a shell company created about a month before the election. The money has gone to ads and public opinion polls for these candidates and against one of their opponents.

The Nov. 6 election comes as the city faces an ever-worsening financial crisis, pulling $10 million in one-time money this year to make ends meet. The funding gap is projected to grow to a $32 million next fiscal year.

The largest factor in the fiscal crisis is sharply rising employee pension costs – mostly for police – at a time residents complain of long response times to 9-1-1 police calls and a growing population of homeless people affecting neighborhoods and businesses.

Tuesday’s election is considered highly consequential for Santa Ana because three City Council seats are vacant, leading to the largest turnover on the council in six years.

Santa Ana voters will also decide Tuesday whether to approve the highest sales tax among the 34 cities in Orange County, to bring in an estimated $63 million extra to the city each year to avoid bankruptcy or major cuts to services.

While the exact amount varies by family, depending on how much they purchase in the city each year, the tax increase would cost hundreds of dollars a year for many households. It raises the cost of each purchase in the city by 1.5 percent – from the current 7.75 percent sales tax to 9.25 percent – and would add an estimated $63 million extra per year to the city’s coffers.

The Candidates:

  • Mayor:
    • Miguel Pulido: Mayor for the last 24 years, endorsed by the police union and works as business consultant.
    • Sal Tinajero: City Councilman for the last 12 years, endorsed by the Democratic Party of Orange County, and works as a public school speech and debate coach.
  • City Council Ward 2
    • Alfonso Ceja-Villa: Affordable housing coordinator with Volunteers of America.
    • Paul Gonzales: Manager with investment firm Capital Group Companies, endorsed by the Democratic Party of Orange County.
    • Miguel “Mike” Gonzalez: Runs a private security firm, endorsed by the Republican Party of Orange County.
    • Irma Macias, Retired volunteer involved with Com-Link and the Mid-City Neighborhood Association.
    • Sandra “Pocha” Peña Sarmiento: Local artist, chair of the city’s Arts and Culture Commission, and cousin of current Councilman Vicente Sarmiento.
    • David Penaloza: Senior regulatory engineer with Color Science Inc., endorsed by the police union.
  • City Council Ward 4
    • Phil Bacerra: Land use consultant and former planning commissioner, endorsed by the police union.
    • Roman Reyna: Former city councilman and current planning commissioner, running with Tinajero.
  • City Council Ward 6
    • Cecilia “Ceci” Iglesias: Santa Ana Unified School District board member, endorsed by the Republican Party of Orange County and considered the frontrunner for Ward 6.
    • Nelida Mendoza: Rancho Santiago Community College board member, endorsed by the Democratic Party of Orange County
    • Mirna Velasquez: business consultant, endorsed by the police union.

The Ballot Measures:

  • Measure X: Increases sales taxes by 1.5 percent – from the current 7.75 percent to 9.25 percent of each sale – and is estimated to bring in an estimated $63 million extra to the city each year. More info.
  • Measure Z: Among other things, deletes city charter provisions that currently limit officials from soliciting or receiving campaign money and gifts from people with decisions before the city, and grants the City Council the ability to change or eliminate them.
  • Measure AA: Changes Santa Ana’s voting system from at-large to district-based voting starting with the following city election, in November 2020.
  • Measure Y: Sets marijuana business license taxes, and lets City Council increase or decrease them.

Secret and Hidden Donors Behind Campaign Ads

This election year has seen a significant amount of money that is either completely dark, despite California laws that are supposed to make campaign money public.

The largest example so far is $170,000 in dark money going to ads against Bacerra and supporting Reyna, Tinajero, and Peña Sarmiento, through a recently-created committee called “Californians for Ethical Patient Care.”

The committee was created on Oct 10, and has reported a single source of its money so far: $170,000 from a company called “19th Green OC, LLC,” which was created Oct. 3 without listing on its registration who manages or controls it.

California law requires that committees spending on elections, such as Californians for Ethical Patient Care, disclose the “true source” of the contribution, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), which enforces election money disclosure laws.

“A committee receiving a contribution of $100 or more from an intermediary must report the true source and the intermediary,” the FPPC’s manual states. It gives an example of a business collecting money from others to give to a campaign committee – and says the original sources must be disclosed.

“Failure to disclose the true source of a contribution is considered one of the most serious violations of the Political Reform Act,” the manual states.

Tinajero, in an interview Thursday, said he doesn’t know where the group’s money is coming from.

“I have no idea,” Tinajero said. “Today there was a piece that hit that supported myself, Roman Reyna, a candidate in Ward 2, and Cecilia Iglesias. So I don’t know who’s doing what. Those are political action expenditures…I’m in the dark [about] the dark money.”

Another way money has been obscured in the election is through money traveling through multiple committees before reaching the elections.

When video ads featuring Mayor Pulido talking about “solving the homelessness crisis” appeared on Facebook last month, the disclosure said it was “Paid for by Alliance for Jobs and the Economy. Major funding provided by Friends of Great Park PAC and RHW Holdings LLC.”

It turns out Friends of the Great Park PAC is 94 percent funded by FivePoint – the developer of the Great Park and the surrounding neighborhoods and real estate in Irvine – as well as its lobbying firm Starpointe Ventures.

And business registration filings show RHW Holdings, LLC is managed by Christopher Lee, a partner with Arrimus Capital, which has invested in the city’s largest mixed-use real estate development, The Heritage, that Pulido voted to approve in 2015 and 2017.

The Facebook disclosures don’t name the original source of the money, and do not provide a link for the public to look it up.

What Separates the Mayoral Candidates?

Voice of OC, in phone interviews, asked Pulido and Tinajero what they consider the biggest things they’d do differently in office from their opponent.

Pulido said he would continue to strongly support the OC Streetcar project on the Orange County Transportation Authority board, calling it “a beautiful project.” He said he’d also work with developers on building more in the city – including developing the publicly-owned Willowick Golf Course – and continue to support the creation of a new homeless shelter in the city.

“The homeless right now are causing a lot of damage to the city from a crime standpoint. It’s a load on our police department,” Pulido said in the interview, adding U.S. District Judge David O. Carter will “make sure that the other cities build their fair share.”

“But in the meantime we’re going as fast as we can, because I want to take back control over the city,” Pulido said. “Unfortunately we’re limited in what we can do because we don’t have the shelter [yet].”

Tinajero said, “The biggest different between the mayor and myself is the mayor has always been tied to special interests. His goal has been to stay in power at all cost.”

As for what he’d do differently, Tinajero said he would work to “stop the expansion of charter schools in our city, [which] take funds away from schools,” and that he’d expand park space by building trust with the school district to open school fields after school and on weekends through joint-use agreements.

On homelessness, Tinajero also said he’s taken leadership on the new shelter, which is “being modeled after the homeless shelter that they have in Anaheim.” He said that means homeless people “have to come in by referral, and that it doesn’t have negative effects to the surrounding businesses.”

“The mayor said that we should use the police department to harass them homeless people out of Santa Ana,” said Tinajero, adding Judge Carter warned that if the city does that he will not allow it to enforce its anti-camping laws.

City Manager’s Future Could Be At Stake

The fate of Santa Ana’s city manager, Raul Godinez, could also be in play in the election. He was narrowly hired last year with a contentious 4-3 council vote on his employment contract, and three of the four council members who supported him are termed out and leaving office mid-December.

People close to the City Council said there likely would be a strong effort to push him out if police union candidates end up with a four-seat majority on the council after next week’s election.

Godinez’ contract prohibits the City Council from firing him during the six months before or after council elections. But a new council majority could still push Godinez out and pay him a taxpayer-funded settlement or severance of several hundred thousand dollars, according to people close to the City Council.

Domestic Violence Claims and Denials

Bacerra, a council candidate for Ward 4, was accused by a former girlfriend of physical and emotional abuse, which he denied.

An investigation commissioned by the Democratic Party of Orange County, which endorsed Bacerra, found no independent evidence substantiating claims of physical violence committed by Bacerra, but did find evidence of verbal abuse Bacerra and his ex-girlfriend directed at each other. The party then suspended its endorsement.

Velasquez, another candidate supported by the police union, was arrested last year for alleged domestic violence, according to Tustin police records that do not explain the circumstances.

“This was a personal family matter and misunderstanding,” Velasquez said in an emailed statement to Voice of OC. “No further action was taken by the police department or the district attorney.”

She provided a May 2017 letter from the Tustin Police Department saying the District Attorney’s Office declined to file criminal charges in the case because there was “insufficient evidence.”

Tustin police officials, after multiple requests by Voice of OC over the last two weeks, have so far declined to state why Velasquez was arrested.

“At the end of the day it was a family matter that went [nowhere] and was resolved,” Velasquez wrote in a text message to Voice of OC, adding, “our legal system found no merit in it.”

Clarification: This article has been updated to add Peña Sarmiento’s position as chair of the city’s Arts and Culture Commission.

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

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