An effort to recall two Santa Ana City Council members who voted against a $25 million raise for police officers has apparently stalled, after the city rejected paperwork required to start the signature-gathering process.
It’s the latest twist in a months-long saga over the police raises, which tie up most of the new money from Santa Ana’s recent $60 million sales tax increase, of which an estimated $40 million will cover shortfalls for existing city costs.
The tax increase, which is the highest among the 34 cities in Orange County, was described on the ballot as a “Homeless Prevention” measure.
The effort to recall council members Cecilia Iglesias and Juan Villegas apparently was stopped in its tracks on a technicality: the person who submitted the paperwork wasn’t a registered voter in Santa Ana, which city officials say is required under state law.
In their rejection letter, city officials said the paperwork could be resubmitted by a Santa Ana voter, which would allow the roughly 10,865 required signatures to be gathered to put the recall on the ballot.
But in the two weeks since the rejection, recall paperwork hasn’t been sent in.
The person who submitted the paperwork, Cynthia Guzman of the Los Angeles County city of El Monte, declined Monday to say whether the recall is moving forward, why she believed the council members should be recalled, and whether the police union is involved in the effort.
The city’s police union president, Sgt. Gerry Serrano, didn’t return phone messages asking if the union was involved in the recall effort.
“We have determined that your filing is insufficient because you, as a proponent, are not a registered voter in the City of Santa Ana as required by [California] Elections Code,” wrote Norma Mitre, the acting city clerk, in her May 1 rejection letter.
“Specifically, Section 11005, requires that ‘The proponents of a recall must be registered voters of the electoral jurisdiction of the officer they seek to recall.’ In addition, your name and address does not appear on the list of proponents as required by Elections Code, Section 11020.”
Guzman challenged the rejection in writing, saying state law does not require she be a Santa Ana voter to submit the paperwork. City officials are standing by their decision to reject it.
The paperwork could be re-submitted, or recall supporters could challenge the clerk’s rejection in court, though no such lawsuit was filed as of Monday.
The $25 million in raises passed in February on a 4-to-2 vote, with Iglesias and Villegas voting against the raises and against any mid-year budget changes to fund them. It would have taken five council members to approve the movement of more than $4 million to the Police Department to fund this fiscal year’s raises.
That meant the city was locked into paying the raises this fiscal year without the $4.3 million in funding to actually pay for it – at least until there was a fifth vote to move the money, which Villegas and Iglesias have refused to provide.
Minutes before the Feb. 5 vote to approve the raises, Mayor Miguel Pulido said the council should approve the raises and “we’ll figure out” later if the funding can be authorized.
The next day, Villegas sent a memo to Santa Ana officers expressing his “avid” support for law enforcement but saying the size of the raises was not “financially feasible and sustainable.”
The day after Villegas’ memo, the police union president called on Villegas to change his vote and approve the $4.3 million transfer at the next council meeting.
“Hopefully, at the next council meeting [Villegas]votes to fund the approved contract as staff recommended,” Serrano wrote in a Feb. 7 memo to police officers on the union’s letterhead.
But Villegas and Iglesias held their ground and refused to re-allocate money to fund the raises, which the city has started to pay out amid reports the Police Department will run out of its approved budget in June.
In late March, a person close to city politics told Voice of OC the police union was preparing to organize a recall campaign against Villegas.
About a month later, on April 30, paperwork seeking a recall against Villegas and Iglesias was filed with the City Clerk’s office by Guzman, a Los Angeles County resident.
The “grounds fo the recall” cited on the paperwork included, among other things, a claim that “Mr. Villegas attacks initiatives supporting…public safety” and that “Ms. Iglesias opposed revenue initiatives supporting…public safety.”
“Public safety” is a common term in local politics and government to describe police officers.
In the meantime, city staff have been grappling with how to move money around the city, including potentially pulling funds from other departments.
City Manager Kristine Ridge didn’t return a phone call and email by press deadline asking if the Police Department have enough in its approved budget to cover the raises through the end of June, and what the projected shortfall is.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].