A resident referendum movement against one of Santa Ana’s most controversial development projects at 2525 N. Main St. is one step closer to turning a decision on the project over to voters in an election.

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County elections officials have certified a referendum petition by residents who oppose and live next to the 2525 apartments project, a 256-unit development by developer Ryan Ogulnick that got the City Council’s final approval on January 23. At the time, residents opposed to the project had warned they would challenge it with a referendum petition, which they filed with the city in late February.

Valid signatures from 10,909 Santa Ana voters were required to qualify.  The Orange County Registrar of Voters stopped validating the petition after looking at 15,666 signatures and obtaining 10,912 valid signatures. A total of 19,160 signatures were filed.

Santa Ana city spokesman Paul Eakins said the certified paperwork will be presented to the City Council at their April 21 meeting, where council members could either vote to hold a special election or place the issue on the November general election ballot. Either way, voters would decide whether or not to approve the project.

Or the council could vote to repeal the ordinance they approved for the project entirely.

“I have no idea what the council will do with it,” said Ogulnick in a Tuesday phone interview, adding that he and his team have already mounted a legal effort against the residents’ movement – specifically, they’re challenging whether the referendum team spent longer than the legal 30-day timeline to gather the required number of signatures on their referendum petition.

Developer Ryan Ogulnick during the Nov. 19 Santa Ana City Council meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“The election codes are strict … in essence, you have to turn in the signatures prior to the ordinance prior to it becoming effective, which is 30 days after the council approved the ordinance,” Ogulnick said. He’s enlisted the legal services of elections law attorney Steven Kaufman, who didn’t respond to phone and email messages seeking comment Tuesday.

In previous statements, the city has defended the legal integrity of the referendum petition. Because the 30-day period for signature collection ended on a weekend – Saturday, Feb. 22 – when City Hall was closed, the City Clerk allowed the referendum team to submit the paperwork on the following Monday, Feb. 24.

City Clerk Daisy Gomez “requested that the Orange County Registrar of Voters only count signatures that were collected through the end of the 30-day period, by Saturday, Feb. 22. The Registrar of Voters agreed. On Feb. 25, the Clerk of the Council completed the prima facie review of the referendum petition and the petition was accepted,” said Eakins in a March 11 statement.

In an email confirming the Registrar of Voter’s results Tuesday, Eakins reiterated: “the examination only included those signatures collected from January 24, 2020, through February 22, 2020.  Any signatures collected prior to January 24th and after February 22nd were considered invalid.”

“Because it’s a legal issue I’m reluctant to talk about it too much,” one of the neighborhood’s key organizers against the project, Dale Helvig, said in a Tuesday phone interview. “We feel like we have a strong case, always have. We had guidance from the city, and we followed those directions. It’s the (developers’) prerogative to challenge it.”

“It’s about time the City Council place the residents’ input ahead of the pocketbooks of the developers. The project has been wrong from the beginning, no matter what they’ve done to downsize it,” he added.

The project has become the center of an ongoing debate in Santa Ana over the role of developers in city politics.

At a council meeting in December, Councilman Juan Villegas publicly tied, without naming names, a person behind the 2525 project to the $320,000 in political contributions from undisclosed sources — also known as “dark money” — spent in the 2018 City Council elections. Villegas welcomed an interview with the FBI in the event of an investigation.

Ogulnick has repeatedly denied any involvement in the dark money campaign.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter at @photherecord.

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