Santa Ana Disbands Public Safety Board Amid Police Union Demand for Council Critics’ Removal

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Santa Ana City Council during a meeting in 2019.

Santa Ana City Council members this week took the controversial step of disbanding their public safety board after the local police union demanded that two council critics be removed from the panel.

“This has been turned into a political hit job against two sitting council members by the Santa Ana Police Officers Association. I have respect for the Santa Ana Police Department and the individual police officers of the department,” said resident Mike Tardif at the Council’s Tuesday meeting, “but the association which represents them politically has sunk to the lowest of lows.”

The City Council voted 4-2 – with council members Jose Solorio and David Penaloza opposed, and Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias absent — to disband several subcommittees at their Tuesday meeting.

Among the boards disbanded is the public safety board, where two of the police union’s most vocal critics, Iglesias and Councilman Juan Villegas, sit alongside Penaloza.

The union in a memo to the council last month criticized Villegas and Iglesias and requested their removal from the public safety board, questioning their commitment to the city’s police officers and their ability to make key public safety policy decisions.

The union has also put more than $300,000 behind recall efforts against the two, though the movement to unseat Villegas has apparently stalled while the one against Iglesias has been approved by county officials to proceed to a recall election.

In response to a previous Voice of OC article, the union’s president Gerry Serrano rejected the notion that his union’s backing of a recall effort against Iglesias is solely in retaliation for the two council members’ opposition to the raises, which were negotiated between the city and the union and approved by mostly union-backed council members in February.

“That is not the case. Read the notice of intent, which is what the votes signed. Makes no sense to recall someone in the minority for one vote over a year ago,” Serrano said in an email criticizing the story.

Villegas and Iglesias last year opposed that contract between the city and the union for $25 million in raises for police officers over three years, and initially blocked mid-year budget adjustments to start paying for them.

“Mr. Villegas was an absolute ‘no’ in the approval of the public safety budget and a ‘no’ on the officer’s current MOU (contract), which was the only reason the police department has been able to address the vacancies, retention and recruitment efforts,” the union’s Jan. 21 letter reads.

“During the budget approval process, they directed City staff to segregate the entire police budget to enable them to vote ‘No’ on that part of the budget that supports public safety,” says another section of the letter.

Resident Johnathan Hernandez in public comment said that although he doesn’t see “eye-to-eye” with Villegas and Iglesias on all issues, “it is my responsibility as a resident to recognize injustices, and this is an injustice.”

“Do not stay silent. Go against the corruption of the POA. The city is not theirs,” he said.

Still, Villegas supported the council’s move to disband the committees Tuesday, citing a $55,000 cost figure for city staff and council members to man all of the committees —  a point brought up by Councilman Phil Bacerra, who questioned the efficiency of such public money going toward committees where votes aren’t made.

Bacerra before the vote acknowledged the political backdrop, pointing out that “certain political entities” have “decided to politicize this and myopically narrow the focus on council members and take the focus away from what I saw as an opportunity to streamline the process and in fact, I saw an opportunity to focus the sunshine where it should be, which is on this council.”

Disbanding the committees and restructuring them at some point in the future – which the council set no clear date for – leaves the possibility that the council could rebuild a similar public safety board leaving Villegas and Iglesias out.

Despite this, Villegas said doing away with the committees in the meantime would “save quite a bit of money.”

He added that “if we feel that we would need a committee” for a substantial project to go through, “we could bring it back at a future date.”

Penaloza, while supportive of restructuring the committees to reflect a new council following the elections, said “the community really enjoys them and likes having that additional layer of input. It helps us really dissect things before they come to the council.”

“I do think that these committees do serve a purpose and provide a real valuable avenue for the public to give ideas, we should have more engagement with our residents rather than less,” Solorio said before the vote.

Mayor Miguel Pulido said that when the time comes to restructure the committees, the council will have to think about council members’ “purpose” for each committee.

“The bigger question is ‘purpose.’ … I’d be open to bring it back and if there’s three members that want to serve on a particular committee and they have purpose, and they agree with staff and we all have a discussion, I’d go for that,” Pulido said.

He pointed out that while the Family Justice Center – a product of the public safety board – has been “wonderful” since it opened, “a lot of the work was done really not in the committee, cause it really can’t do some of that work.”

The Family Justice Center was another point of criticism in the union’s letter, which called the center a “political ploy” for Villegas and raised questions over the hiring of a “female friend” of Villegas to help coordinate the center. The letter also criticized the center for its location inside the police department, which the union contends is unusual and should be separate.

The center has been open for less than a week, but has already shown to have a use for residents. Since last Wednesday, the center has seen four new walk-in clients, with one of them making a follow-up appointment, according to staff.

The Family Justice Center is “wonderful, but it could’ve and probably would’ve happened anyway,” Pulido said. “Ultimately this is where the accountability has to be, right here on this dais.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.