Santa Ana City Council members grappled Tuesday with a range of issues including a $400,000 payment to the ousted city manager and creating closed-door committees where council members can make policy in secret, while City Hall’s day-to-day leadership remained in limbo.
The original Council agenda also included authorizing the destruction of eight boxes of police records regarding investigations of officers for misconduct, use of force, shootings and in-custody deaths. But the item later quietly disappeared from the agenda, and the agenda documents were deleted from the city’s website.
Steven Mendoza, the acting city manager, told Voice of OC after the meeting he removed it because he didn’t have a grasp on the item before he briefed council members.
City Manager Raul Godinez and the city’s second-in-command, Robert Cortez, departed over the past two months following election results that shifted the council’s power, with City Council members on Tuesday narrowly authorizing a $400,000 taxpayer payout to Godinez. City Clerk Maria Huizar handed in her resignation Jan. 8.
During their closed session Tuesday, City Council members were scheduled to discuss temporary replacements for the city manager and clerk, though they ended up making no appointments.
Mayor Miguel Pulido has wanted Laguna Niguel City Manager Kristine Ridge as Santa Ana’s chief executive, while Councilman Jose Solorio has favored Public Works Director Fuad Sweiss for the job, according to people close to the Council.
Mendoza, who is also director of the city’s Community Development Agency, continued to double as acting city manager and Huizar returned to the dais for a final time before her resignation takes effect Monday, Jan. 21, and she leaves to become the city clerk of Lake Forest.
Godinez’ and Huizar’s departures follow those of Cortez – the former deputy city manager – and one of the city manager’s top aides, Jorge Garcia, since the election.
$400,000 Ouster Payout Sparks Pushback
At its meeting Tuesday, the Council finalized an agreement for Godinez’ departure as city manager in a 4-to-1 vote, with Mayor Pulido and council members Juan Villegas, Jose Solorio and David Penaloza approving a nearly $400,000 payout for Godinez to leave.
Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias voted against it and council members Roman Reyna and Vicente Sarmiento were absent from the vote, because they left the meeting just before the item was discussed and did not return.
Reyna and Sarmiento didn’t say why they were leaving. Pulidosaid they left due to family member emergencies, without explaining further.
Reyna didn’t return phone messages Wednesday asking why he left the meeting early.
Sarmiento said over the phone a member of his family was sick, and when asked how he would have voted on Godinez’ separation agreement, he called the question “speculative, since the item wasn’t before me.”
“Raul did a commendable job while he was here, but he also understood he came in on a thin majority,” Sarmiento said. “He did good work.”
Sarmiento was the only council member to not show up to the council meeting in early 2017 where a payment was approved ousting a prior city manager, David Cavazos. Reyna faces pressure from a police union-backed candidate’s lawsuit seeking to remove Reyna from office, with a trial scheduled for Jan. 23.
Godinez’ fate came into play publicly on Jan. 4, when a slim majority of the council talked about his departure in a special closed session meeting but took no publicly-reported action.
Over the last six years, the city has cycled through at least seven people in the acting or permanent city manager role, as the council’s power dynamics shift away from, and back towards, Pulido and the police union.
Iglesias, a Republican and self-described fiscal conservative, opposed the cost of Godinez’ severance and expressed frustration at Santa Ana’s high turnover of city managers over the last several years.
“I feel [the severance] is inappropriate, being that we’re in a financial burden. We’re spending like there’s no tomorrow,” she said of the fact the city is spending over $1 million for payoffs of ousted executives during the last two years.
The forced resignation of then-City Manager David Cavazos in late 2016 and early 2017 cost taxpayers at least $343,000, and the subsequent firing of Police Chief Carlos Rojas led to a lawsuit the Council agreed to settle last month for $350,000 in taxpayer money.
Iglesias had Mendoza, the acting city manager, restate into his microphone the exact cost to the city for Godinez’ severance and Medicare taxes: $394,586.21.
“For him to, just, walk away. OK,” Iglesias said.
Godinez’ last day of official employment at City Hall is Feb. 1, though the city manager role has been filled by Mendoza for the past few weeks and Godinez is not expected to return, according to people close to the city.
Possible Destruction of Police Records
Police Chief David Valentin asked the Council for permission to destroy eight boxes of police records, from 2009 through 2012, ranging from internal investigations and employee misconduct to use-of-force incidents and citizens’ complaints. While it was on the original agenda, it was quietly deleted and never came up in Council discussion Tuesday.
It was removed sometime between Thursday evening, when the agenda was posted to the city website, and Sunday evening, without any written notice or indication that it was there previously.
Asked by Voice of OC after the meeting why it was deleted, Mendoza said he removed it because, “being put in the seat recently, I was unable to wrap my arms around that item. As you can tell, I have to be well prepared at each meeting on a variety of topics.”
The Police Department reasoned that the records are “obsolete” and have been kept for the minimum five-year period required by state law, according to screenshots of the staff report taken by a Voice of OC reporter before Mendoza took it down.
The Police Department’s request came as a new state law went into effect Jan. 1 allowing the public to obtain a variety of internal police records regarding investigations of officer misconduct, officer-worn camera footage and other records for public access.
Closed-Door Policy Committees
During a discussion on changing the Council’s public committees, Pulido said he wants to see more “ad hoc” committees, which are informal, two or three-member committees that develop city policy in secret.
Such committees, as long as the appointed council members don’t make the four-member quorum, usually do not have to abide by the Ralph M. Brown Act transparency laws and would provide a venue for the Council to move forward on policies and deals behind closed doors without public oversight or input.
The city’s permanent, or “standing” committees, in contrast, have to hold their meetings in public and publicly disclose what they plan on talking about.
“Some would say I prefer to work on an ad hoc — that I don’t want to be on structured permanent committees — and that’s okay too,” Pulido said Tuesday, adding the Council “has that flexibility.”
When Iglesias expressed interest in joining the School District and City Council committee, which would meet in public, Pulido interjected: “Or you could come to me…in establishing an ad hoc committee for that specific purpose. And that could exist for a month or a year or whatever until you feel you’ve accomplished enough.”
Villegas then proposed replacing the council’s Economic Development, Infrastructure, Budget and Technology subcommittee, with an ad hoc committee. Solorio disagreed to a point.
“I think it’s important to keep it as it is,” Solorio said. “That’s not to say there couldn’t be an ad hoc committee on one aspect of this — let’s say the budget or development project — but I wouldn’t want to make the whole thing an ad hoc committee.”
Solorio, who has been preparing to potentially run for mayor next year when Pulido is termed-out, acknowledged after the meeting the potential problems with ad hoc committees when it comes to the Brown Act.
“Ad hoc committees do serve an important purpose from time to time, but it shouldn’t be putting existing committees in jeopardy,” he told Voice of OC.
$1.7 Million Car Dealership Subsidy
The Council unanimously approved a $1.7 million subsidy deal for car dealerships across the city, as part of a program to incentivize Santa Ana residents to buy from local dealerships and receive a $500 rebate that they could elect to have deducted from their payments or receive in a check from the city.
The City Council previously awarded a direct $1 million subsidy to the dealerships in late 2017, but it fell apart after city staff realized the council approved it illegally by not following a state law requirement that cities explain how a proposed subsidy would benefit the public.
The new deal, approved Tuesday, provides up to $1.7 million in city funding for car purchases at the dealerships. City staff, including Mendoza, didn’t return phone messages Wednesday asking whether the deal follows state requirements for subsidies.
The new program is expected to take effect April 1, according to Peter Whittingham, a lobbyist for the Orange County Auto Dealers Association who previously worked as vice president of former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle’s lobbying firm.
The approved terms will go before the council for final approval within 30 days of Tuesday’s vote, according to Mendoza.
Developer Grows Impatient
Mike Harrah, the influential Santa Ana real estate developer, expressed frustration with the Council for delaying an exclusive deal for his company to obtain and redevelop the historic city-owned YMCA building in downtown, just north of the Old Orange County Courthouse.
A different bidder, the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA), ranked highest in the city’s competitive bidding process last year, about 28 percent higher than Harrah’s bid, through his company Caribou Industries.
Council members, several of whom receive thousands of dollars in campaign money and other donations from Harrah, then directed city staff to see if OCSA could team up with Harrah on the project.
After discussions between the two bidders, OCSA said a collaboration with Harrah wouldn’t work, and the City Council ultimately moved to grant Harrah an exclusive deal to develop the property.
But at Tuesday’s meeting, there was no majority for two motions – to approve the exclusive negotiating agreement with Caribou, or to approve the deal on the condition Caribou publicly meets with OSCA to figure out a partnership. Consideration of the deal will roll over to the next council meeting, which is scheduled for Feb. 5
“It’s time we do something with this. I’ve invested 23 years with this city, and over $200 million on 5 million square feet here,” Harrah publicly told the council members Tuesday. “Prolonging this only adds to more agony of having homeless people surround the building. The only thing I wanna do is clean this up. We need to make a change.”
Harrah lost a previous bid for the YMCA building in 2014 to St. Joseph Health and Taller San Jose, which in 2017 backed out of an estimated $18 million deal to turn it into a fitness center.
“I still believe that Caribou and OSCA can work together on this,” said Pulido.
Harrah proposed Tuesday that the Council first approve his exclusive deal for the building and that he would later try to convince OSCA to join the project.
“My heart is with education and making things happen,” he said, adding “I’m a believer that once you approve the [exclusive negotiating agreement with my company], I can convince the school and everyone can work together.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.