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Santa Ana City Council members tonight will consider taking two of their colleagues off a public safety board — or disbanding it entirely — responding to a request from the city’s police union to remove the council members after they publicly questioned hiking police salaries over the last year.
The City Council today will discuss “restructuring” or eliminating a list of certain council subcommittees, including the public safety board where two of the police union’s most vocal critics on the council, Juan Villegas and Ceci Iglesias, currently sit alongside Councilman David Penaloza.
Council members were originally slated to discuss restructuring or disbanding the subcommittees at their previous Jan. 21 council meeting, but Mayor Miguel Pulido that night tabled the issue for two weeks.
That same day, the police union – which represents the city’s police officers during salary negotiations and is one of the city’s largest political spenders in Santa Ana elections — sent a letter to the City Council specifically demanding Villegas and Iglesias be taken off the public safety board.
The police union’s president, Gerry Serrano, told Voice of OC on Monday he didn’t believe the council continued discussion on the subcommittees in response to his letter.
Iglesias made the union’s Jan. 21 letter public when she posted it to her official City Council Facebook page, and it was later attached to the agenda for today’s meeting, which Serrano said has a few “revisions and clarifications” to it.
Among those revisions include the fact that the letter attached to the agenda includes the union’s political spending identification number with the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).
The letter that Iglesias shared to her Facebook post, before it was updated and attached to today’s agenda, didn’t have any FPPC identification number on it despite the letter – which had been sent to council members — having the police union’s political expenditure committee letterhead.
“The Political Action Committee of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association writes to request that you demand that Councilmembers Cecilia Iglesias and Juan Villegas remove themselves from the Public Safety Committee, and if they refuse to do so, that action is taken to remove them from that Council committee,” the union’s letter attached to today’s agenda reads.
One of the union’s reasons for the union’s request: Villegas, who is an independent, and Iglesias, a Republican, last February voted against $25 million in controversial raises for the city’s police officers over three years, which got approved anyway by mostly union-backed, Democratic council members.
Iglesias in a Monday phone interview said that since she and Villegas voted against the police raises last February, “it’s been the wish” of Serrano for Iglesias and Villegas “not to be involved with any of the issues” that pertain to public safety policy.
The public safety board — known officially as the “Public Safety, Code Enforcement and Neighborhood Empowerment Committee” — typically considers policy matters around neighborhood improvement and safety issues, and recently played a large part in opening a new Family Justice Center in the city’s police department.
Villegas and Iglesias — along with residents, community activists and fiscal watchdogs — criticized the raises as being “unsustainable” for a city cash-strapped by skyrocketing public employee pension costs and ever-growing budget deficits. Those increasing costs led the City Council to ask voters in November 2018 to approve taxing themselves at the highest sales tax rate among the 34 cities in Orange County: 9.25%.
While voicing support for the city’s officers employed at the police department, Villegas and Iglesias have remained at odds with the union that represents them and its president, Serrano.
The union put hundreds of thousands of dollars into recall efforts against Villegas and Iglesias. While the recall efforts against Villegas have apparently stalled, the efforts to unseat Iglesias were certified to proceed to an election by county elections officials on Monday, and staff will present the certified recall result to the City Council at their Feb. 18 meeting where a recall election date could be set.
The union’s letter questions Villegas’ and Iglesias’ commitment to the city’s police officers and claims they “have demonstrated by their statements and actions that they are not fit to oversee this vital function of City government.”
The union in its letter calls the newly opened Family Justice Center a “political ploy” for Villegas, who the union criticizes for involving a friend to coordinate the center. The letter also criticizes the decision to put the Family Justice Center inside the police department, calling it “phony.”
But residents have already shown a need for the center, which the city website describes as a “one-stop shop” where survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, human trafficking and elder abuse can receive social services and get help from a number of different organizations.
It’s been open for less than a week, but since last Wednesday has seen four new walk-in clients, with one of them making a follow-up appointment, said Santa Ana Police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna on Monday.
“I don’t understand the meaning behind the letter, all I have done is support public safety and our community,” said Villegas in a statement responding to the union’s letter on Sunday.
“I know that the union could have pull with some of my colleagues because they spent money to get them on the council,” Iglesias said, adding that today “will be very telling.”
Residents, she said, could witness “who really controls City Hall: the voters, or the police union.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the sales tax rate in Santa Ana. We regret the error.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.