Santa Ana Confronts City Leadership Vacuum

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Santa Ana City Council members and the public at the council meeting on Feb. 2, 2019.

Santa Ana, facing a wave of departures from the city manager’s office since November, is now set to get a new city manager May 1, and will hold a special election this November to fill the vacant City Council seat formerly held by Roman Reyna.

City Council members, at a three-hour special meeting Friday evening, narrowly appointed as city manager Kristine Ridge, whom Mayor Miguel Pulido advocated for during the last city manager selection in 2017 and again over the last several months.

For their other item of business – appointing a City Council member for Ward 4 – none of the six applicants had enough support from the council to get appointed.

With no applicant getting a majority of four council members, the council voted to instead hold a special election in November for the seat. The plan is to combine it with Nov. 5 special election for the vacant Santa Ana Unified School District seat formerly held by Cecilia Iglesias, who was elected to the City Council this past November.

With the decision now falling to voters, Reyna’s former seat is on track to sit vacant until November, and could keep the status quo for two major decisions before the city.

So far, there has not been enough support on the council to fund the first year of a $25 million pay raise for police officers, nor to approve the 2525 N. Main St. housing development.

The police raise funding remains one vote shy of the five council members needed to approve it.

Ridge, the current Laguna Niguel city manager, is a former Anaheim deputy city manager and finalist for Santa Ana city manager in 2017. Pulido reportedly began advocating for Ridge again when he and other council members were ousting Raul Godinez in mid-December.

“We need somebody at the helm,” Pulido said, adding the city “got a good package” with Ridge’s compensation.

“I think the right decision is to move forward today, and to start addressing” the issues facing the city, the mayor added.

Ridge’s contract is “evergreen,” meaning it automatically renews at the end of each contract year for a three-year period.

So long as the council hadn’t given notice to terminate the contract, “you’re always going to have somewhere between 2 years and 1 month, and 3 years, [left on Ridge’s contract] at any given time,” City Attorney Sonia Carvalho told the council.

Any severance payouts for Ridge to leave would be based on mutually-agreeable terms between herself and the City Council, staff said.

Ridge had asked a four-year evergreen contract, which a City Council ad-hoc committee negotiated down to three years, Carvalho told the council.

Voting for the appointment and contract were Pulido and council members Juan Villegas, David Penaloza, and Ceci Iglesias, who said the city has been in trouble with five vacancies in the city manager’s office. Voting against Ridge’s contract were councilmen Jose Solorio and Vicente Sarmiento, who raised concerns about the financial terms.

“We need some stability,” Villegas said at the meeting. “We’re bleeding on the 8th floor up there [at the city manager’s office]. We have five strong positions that are vacant. We need a captain of this ship.”

“We need somebody. There’s nobody upstairs [at the city manager’s office],” said Penaloza just before he voted for Ridge’s contract. “I walked the 8th floor, and there’s literally nobody there. It’s embarrassing.”

Sarmiento and Solorio said they liked Ridge but that they couldn’t vote for the proposed contract terms.

“I hope that we can get…to some agreement with Ms. Ridge,” Sarmiento said before the vote. “But given where we’re are right now, this is just a very, very difficult contract for me to support.”

Iglesias voted for Ridge’s appointment, and cautioned to work for the whole council, not just one or two members.

“We need…someone who’s going to be working for the residents of Santa Ana. And I’m hoping that it’s not for a single member of this City Council,” Iglesias said, adding she will be “holding [the new city manager] accountable.”

“We need someone who is reachable, someone who has an open door policy, and someone who works for the entire interest of all of residents here, not just for one member or or two members of council,” Iglesias added.

Paying for Godinez’ more than $394,000 severance – along with costs for the similarly-timed departures of Deputy City Manager Robert Cortez and another high-level city manager staffer, Jorge Garcia – will likely require a mid-year budget increase to the city manager’s office budget, according to city staff.

The city manager’s budget is “upside-down,” Acting City Manager Steven Mendoza told the council Friday.

“The budget’s about $275,000 in the hole on the 8th floor right now. And that is due to three major payouts” to Godinez and two other city manager staffers who left in recent months, Mendoza told the council.

The dollar amount of the proposed city manager’s office increase was not disclosed Friday but is scheduled to appear on a public meeting agenda when the council decides on its mid-year budget adjustments, which have been delayed.

There was confusion at the meeting about whether city staff disclosed the total pricetag of Ridge’s compensation, which the staff report said put at about $385,000 in salary and benefits for the first year.

City staff, under questioning from Solorio, at one point said their public cost estimate was missing thousands of dollars in additional benefits Ridge would receive.

But several minutes later, after hearing back from the city’s finance director, staff told council members the public report did include that compensation after all.

Reyna agreed in early February to resign as of March 1 – and did so – to avoid a civil trial on allegations he falsely claimed to live in the Ward 4 City Council district he was running for last year.

A District Attorney’s Office criminal investigation is underway into election residency fraud claims against Reyna, with investigators serving search warrants at multiple locations in recent weeks to obtain documents as part of the probe.

In the planned civil election fraud trial, Reyna faced the likelihood of sworn testimony in public by other city officials and one of his family members regarding allegations he falsified residency documents in order to wrongfully show he was eligible to run for the Ward 4 seat he won in November. But his settlement of the civil case doesn’t prevent the DA’s office from conducting a criminal investigation.

In his campaign for council, Reyna was part of a slate of candidates who ran against candidates backed by the city’s influential police union.

As part of that slate, Reyna was a beneficiary of $320,000 in campaign money from a secret source – known as “dark money” – that went to ads supporting himself and two other council candidates, and attacking Reyna’s only opponent, Phil Bacerra.

The $320,000 was routed through a business created one month before the election, and campaign disclosures didn’t disclose the original source of the money.

State investigators with the Fair Political Practices Commission have been examining whether the dark money violated state law, and have conducted at least one interview in Orange County as part of that probe.

At the Friday evening council meeting, current and former council members pointed to the dark money and other large campaign donors as tarnishing city politics.

“This past election – I have to tell you, it was despicable. A lot of dark money, dirty politics,” said former Councilwoman Michele Martinez during public comments, asking the council to put in place unspecified campaign finance reforms.

“Big interest groups…are running the city here today, because they intimidate you, they have bullying tactics, and they put the city in a bad position,” Martinez added.

Villegas, a current councilman who works as a sheriff’s special officer, said he hopes law enforcement take action over the dark money.

“I think about these 30,000 people [who voted for Reyna] that were – I think were misled. They were misled with all the dark money,” Villegas said from the dais. “I hope the authorities really do something on that.”

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