Santa Ana Debates Vacant City Leadership Positions Friday

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Santa Ana City Council meets in January 2019.

Two key city leadership positions in Santa Ana could be filled at a special City Council meeting this coming Friday night – though movement on solving Santa Ana’s leadership vacuum has so far been stalled by deadlocked council members.

Council members were expected at their Tuesday meeting to appoint Laguna Niguel’s current City Manager, Kristine Ridge, as Santa Ana’s permanent replacement for former City Manager Raul Godinez, who was pushed out by Mayor Miguel Pulido and other council members backed by the city police union in February.

Council members were also slated to consider an appointment to the Ward 4 City Council seat left vacant by former Councilman Roman Reyna, who officially stepped down March 1 to avoid a civil trial on election fraud allegations and is now at the center of a current investigation into those allegations by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

Yet on Tuesday, council members balked.

Both appointments were continued at the request of Mayor Miguel Pulido to a special meeting on Friday, a date city staff and council members seemed already aware of, despite no official announcement of the meeting made by the City Clerk’s office before Tuesday evening – as required by state open meetings laws.

City officials received applications from six self-identified Ward 4 residents for appointment to the open council seat if council members opt not to go down the route of a special election, which could take place this November when voters fill a school board vacancy at the Santa Ana Unified School District.

Two candidates who seem to have gained the most support from the public comment dais on Tuesday night were Planning Commissioner Kenneth Nguyen, and Phil Bacerra, who was Reyna’s opponent last November.

Both Nguyen and Bacerra made cases for themselves for the appointment before the Council Tuesday.

Bacerra and three people who spoke in support of him during public comment argued that he’s the appropriate choice for the appointment because he came in behind Reyna for Ward 4 during the November 2018 election.

“We deserve an ethical council member who represents communities and not out-of-town interests,” Bacerra said to the Council.

“Regardless of who’s supported my candidacy, I’ve always been an independent voice. Because of that, developers and other cowardly dark money interests attacked me in a smear campaign,” Bacerra added, referring to $320,000 in dark money spent during the November election partly to oppose his candidacy. The political action committee tied to the money, Californians for Ethical Patient Care, is currently under an investigation by state authorities.

Bacerra’s campaign against Reyna had the backing of the city police union, which recently scored $25 million in raises for police officers, granted by council members, over the next two and a half years.

But an actual plan to fund this year’s $4.3 million cost to the police department by moving money around the city budget requires five votes by the council. With council members Juan Villegas and Ceci Iglesias opposed to the raises entirely, and Reyna’s seat vacant, the council has been deadlocked over approving the funding plan.

Supporting Ken Nguyen during public comment was Westminster Councilwoman Kimberly Ho, who read a letter from Westminster Mayor Tri Ta to Santa Ana council members arguing that Nguyen’s involvement in the local Vietnamese community qualifies him for the seat.

“Ken is one of the unique community leaders that puts his people first before himself,” Ho said, reading off Ta’s letter. “His efforts have helped little Saigon flourish.”

Other Ward 4 Council seat applicants including Jennifer Oliva, Gale Lee Oliver, and Maricela Vallejo made cases for themselves before the dais Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the city manager appointment also seems stuck.

Ridge’s appointment requires a four-vote majority by council members.

With two council seats on the dais unfilled Tuesday – Reyna’s seat being vacant and Councilman Vicente Sarmiento’s absence due to a family emergency – there were still five members left to achieve that.

But Mayor Miguel Pulido moved to continue her appointment to Friday, citing Sarmiento’s absence.

Ridge is a former Anaheim deputy city manager and finalist for Santa Ana city manager in 2017. She’s been Mayor Miguel Pulido’s top choice for the last two rounds of city manager selections, and Pulido reportedly began advocating for Ridge again when he and other council members were ousting Godinez in mid-December.

Ridge’s total compensation under her current proposed employment contract with the City of Santa Ana would rise in her second year from about $385,000 to about $389,000. Her base salary would be $290,000 per year.

The contract doesn’t have a severance provision, which was included in Godinez’ contract. Council members would be able to fire Ridge on a supermajority vote of five council members, according to the contract.

City staff say Ridge’s potential three-year contract for nearly $385,000 in total annual pay, plus Godinez’ $400,000 payout and remaining leave pay owed to three former employees of the City Manager’s office, would exceed the city’s existing budget amounts.

Paying for it all would require an extra $64,000 from the city’s taxpayer general fund through a mid-year budget change, according to a city staff report.

Such a funding adjustment, like the one required to pay off this year’s police raises, would require yet another five-vote supermajority by the council.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Kristine Ridge’s appointment required a five-vote majority by council members. It requires four votes. The original article also incorrectly cited a total amount of “dark money” campaign contributions. Voice of OC regrets the errors.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.orgor on Twitter @photherecord.