Norberto Santana, Jr.

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After just over a year on the job, Santa Ana City Manager Raul Godinez II finds his future at city hall in play, with city council members meeting this past Friday in an abrupt secret session to discuss his exit as well as a severance agreement – which could potentially cost taxpayers close to $500,000.

Raul Godinez was chosen as the next city manager of Santa Ana. Credit: City of Lynwood

Concerned local residents alerted our newsroom to the developing story early Friday and we immediately put out the word about the strange holiday timing of the meeting through our social media channels to see what we could find out. We also scrambled reporters to city hall.

Three council members – Cecilia Iglesias, Juan Villegas and Miguel Pulido – skipped the meeting altogether.

Later that day at 5 p.m., a majority of Santa Ana city council members went straight into closed session and met for about an hour, with no public comment or announcements about the agenda, other than the city clerks’ verbal announcement that Iglesias, Villegas and Pulido were absent.

Councilmembers Vincent Sarmiento, Jose Solorio, Roman Reyna and David Penaloza attended the meeting.

According to the meeting’s public agenda notice, the closed session involved a performance review and dismissal of the city manager as well as an interim appointment.

Voice of OC reporters at the meeting also had city staff confirm that the city manager’s severance agreement was being discussed in the closed session meeting and filed a California Public Records Request at the city council meeting for the document.

After closed session, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho came out into public session and announced that council members took no reportable actions under state law and adjourned the meeting for the night.

City officials have since gone silent on the controversy.

Carvalho didn’t take reporters’ questions that night. Meanwhile, council members who did attend the meeting exited the building afterwards and didn’t comment publicly. Godinez, who city officials now say is on vacation through Jan. 9, also could not be reached for comment

One thing is clear.

There isn’t one city official that will tell us publicly that Godinez has the support of the city council.

In my experience, that means he’s on shaky ground and most likely, on his way out.

Ironically, when Godinez negotiated to take the city manager job in October 2017 – moving up from the head of Public Works in Lynwood – he included a clause that was supposed to save him from this very situation.

Godinez’ contract forbids the city council members from firing him during a window, six months before or after municipal elections where council members stand for election. According to news reports on his contract at the time, if the council does fire him outside of that timeframe, Godinez is entitled to one-year’s severance totaling $489,000.

According to news reports at the time of his appointment, Godinez’ $489,000 annual compensation package in Santa Ana made him the second highest paid chief executive in the state.

If dismissed, Godinez would be the fifth city manager to serve the city council in two years. Former City Manager Cavazos, who received a $343,000 severance, was ousted during similar circumstances in January 2017.

If Godinez got the full amount under his contract, Santa Ana taxpayers would be out $832,000 in city manager payouts in just a few years.

Godinez was appointed by a split, 4-3 city council vote in October 2017 after a series of interim chief executives following the ouster of Cavazos – who was brought in to save the city from the brink of bankruptcy.

Cavazos came in after the outsourcing of the city fire department to the Orange County Fire Authority and instituted a series of short-term budget fixes, which turned city accounts around for a short time. Yet a series of city council-directed employee raises in recent years, particularly in the police department, continue to place real pressure on the municipal budget.

It’s unclear whether Godinez is the best executive fit for the fiscal challenges facing Santa Ana.

He went from leading a relatively small public works department, which had roughly 60 employees, to managing a city with more than 1,400 employees.

Godinez, an engineer by training, managed larger departments in the past, including about 590 employees as public works director in Oakland under then-Mayor Jerry Brown. He moved to Santa Ana in 2009, where he oversaw about 170 employees as the public works director.

He was considered for Santa Ana’s city manager in spring 2013, but wasn’t chosen and left that summer to become city manager of El Monte in Los Angeles County.

Godinez ran into controversy in El Monte in 2015, when residents in the largely-immigrant city learned that the incoming police chief Godinez chose had, in his position as a Hemet City Council member, publicly advocated having California pass a similar law to Arizona’s SB 1070, which required local police to check the immigration status of everyone they stop who they suspected of being in the country illegally.

The police chief candidate Godinez chose had also proposed requiring day laborers to have business licenses, to make it easier to find and deport undocumented immigrants, according to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

Godinez said at the time that political views are not usually part of the vetting process for hiring police chiefs. The following month, he resigned as city manager, and was hired later that year to his current job as Lynwood’s public works director.

Godinez is just the latest controversy to embroil the city’s top executive ranks.

The city’s most recent Police Chief, Carlos Rojas, resigned in April 2017 later claiming in a lawsuit 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.

Rojas alleges to have “engendered the wrath” of the city’s police union, specifically union president Gerry Serrano, for cracking down on officer misbehavior and disciplining police officers who violated the law while at work.

Pulido and Serrano have denied the allegations.

Yet despite all the executive bloodletting at city hall, the real drama facing taxpayers comes from the city budget.

Council members can keep changing out chief executives as much as they like but it’s an expensive sport and ultimately won’t change the nature of the real fiscal challenges facing the city budget.

Leadership on that front most often comes from behind the dais not from the folks working in front of it.

Staff interns Brandon Pho and Katie Licari contributed to this column.

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