Santa Ana faces a wave of top staff departures, as council members vote Tuesday on a nearly $400,000 separation agreement ousting City Manager Raul Godinez and decide on a replacement for longtime City Clerk Maria Huizar, who also is on her way out.
The departures of Godinez and Huizar – along with the city’s second-in-command, Deputy City Manager Robert Cortez, and one of the city manager’s top aides, Jorge Garcia, in the last two months – come amid a change in the council’s balance of power after the November election. The departures, without replacements lined up, cast uncertainty over city leadership as it grapples with a host of key issues, according to people close to City Hall.
Ousters of top-level Santa Ana staff, including Godinez, are on track to cost taxpayers more than $1 million over the last two years. The late 2016 ouster of then-City Manager David Cavazos led to a taxpayer payout of at least $343,000, and the subsequent push-out of Police Chief Carlos Rojas led to a lawsuit the City Council agreed to settle last month for $350,000 in taxpayer money. Godinez’ severance, if approved Tuesday, pushes the total to nearly $1.1 million.
The departures set the stage for a decision on who will fill the city’s top ranks, and whether the new top staff will be loyal to particular council members or interests, according to people on multiple sides of city politics who closely watch City Hall.
The city manager, as the city’s chief executive, is perhaps the most influential choice for the future direction of the city. The City Council is not conducting a broad search for city manager candidates, while certain council members advocate for particular candidates they prefer, according to people close to the council.
Pulido has advocated for Kristine Ridge, who previously was Anaheim’s assistant city manager, according to people close to the council. Ridge was a finalist for Santa Ana city manager in 2017, which Pulido favored her for at the time. After the previous council selected Godinez – a move Pulido voted against – Ridge took a position as Laguna Niguel’s city manager.
Councilman Jose Solorio has favored Public Works Director Fuad Sweiss, according to people close to the council.
Temporary replacements for Godinez and Huizar will be discussed behind closed doors Tuesday, according to the City Council meeting agenda.
Huizar said in a phone interview she resigned Jan. 8. Her last day will be Jan. 21 and she’s leaving for the City of Lake Forest, a move she said was in the process since November and had nothing to do with other staff departures.
Julie Castro-Cardenas, the city manager’s office liaison to the mayor and City Council, is acting in Garcia’s place. The city hasn’t announced a replacement for Cortez, the former deputy city manager, a move that in the past has waited until after a new city manager is selected.
Huizar is a key subject of an ongoing lawsuit by Phil Bacerra, who ran unsuccessfully for the Ward 4 City Council seat in November. Bacerra alleges in his Dec. 4 suit that Reyna, who beat him in the Ward 4 race, was not a qualified resident of the ward for the required 30 days or more prior to entering the race.
Bacerra in his filing points to July 2018 text messages between Huizar and Reyna, in which Huizar said the address listed on Reyna’s initial application form was in Ward 6.
A later text exchange between the two, attached to the lawsuit, shows Huizar instructing Reyna how to provide proof of his residency in the appropriate ward.
In a response filed Dec. 12, Reyna denied most of Bacerra’s lawsuit claims, and said he lacked “sufficient information” on others.
Huizar did not respond to phone and email requests for comment Monday.
If Godinez’ departure is finalized by a majority Council vote, it will mark the third time in six years the City Council removed a City Manager just after an election.
Godinez’ employment contract prohibited his firing within six months before or after an election, following the ouster of former city managers Paul Walters in 2013 and Cavazos, who took a deal to resign facing intense pressure, in early 2017 under the similar post-election circumstances.
Cavazos and Godinez were both heavily opposed by Pulido, and the steps taken to remove the two largely took place in closed session meetings after fresh changes on the dais.
Walters, on the other hand, had Pulido’s support.
Walters’ firing was initiated by a then-Council majority over Pulido, who became frustrated during closed session talks in January 2013 over Walters’ imminent firing and briefly walked out into the public chambers, refusing to participate because he disagreed with the majority’s decision.
Godinez’ firing will cost the city $394,586 in severance and Medicare taxes if approved, according to the separation agreement. It was unclear Monday if there would be additional costs for cashing out Godinez’ benefits, which the city manager’s office couldn’t answer.
After weeks of private discussions about Godinez’ ouster, including a reported closed session City Council discussion on Dec. 18, his fate came into play publicly at a special City Council meeting on Jan. 4. A slim majority of the council, with Pulido and council members Ceci Iglesias and Juan Villegas absent, talked about the termination in closed session but took no publicly-reported action on it.
Godinez, who wasn’t at the meeting, said in a Jan. 6 email he didn’t have anyone representing him for the closed session negotiations, and didn’t respond when asked how long he had previously planned to remain in the position.
Godinez’ biography page has been taken off the city website, but he’s still listed as City Manager.
His employment officially ends Feb.1, according to the separation agreement, though it’s unclear if he has any remaining duties at City Hall.
Steven Mendoza, head of the city’s Community Development Agency, has been filling in as acting city manager in Godinez’ absence.
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.