Santa Ana’s Police Chief has raised questions about whether Police Sgt. Gerry Serrano — the man just re-elected to lead the city’s powerful police union — scored excessive cash-outs for unused time off from City Hall.

In an internal memo obtained by Voice of OC, Police Chief David Valentin says Serrano took an “anomaly” payment worth more than 300 hours of time off in 2017, allegedly exceeding what was allowed under the labor contract that year between the city and police union.

The memo, available to view here, was written in 2018 and responding to another one of Serrano’s cash-out requests that year, which Valentin said again sought an excessive cash-out for unused time off.

“In evaluating your (2018) request for a cash-out which exceeds the parameters of the POA MOU (contract), staff reviewed past practices for both you and former POA Presidents. The City’s payment to you in 2017 for 312 hours of time off appears to be an anomaly,” Valentin’s memo reads.

For an idea of what an acceptable amount would be: Serrano was eligible in 2018 for an up to $22,000 cash-out, Valentin wrote.

The memo doesn’t state how much more Serrano requested that year. Nor does it disclose how much money in total was paid out to Serrano in 2017 for the 312 hours. 

Serrano didn’t reply to phone or email requests for comment for this story. 

Because of his union position, Serrano keeps his job as a police sergeant but is completely released from his city duties under his presidential leave agreement in the city’s labor contract.

In all, Serrano earned $500,000 in total pay and benefits as police sergeant last year, according to Transparent California. Around $290,000 of it consists of his base pay and other pay.

As president, he leads the union that negotiates officers’ taxpayer-funded salaries at City Hall.

In response to numerous requests for an interview, Valentin in a statement through a spokesman said:

“The summary memorandum, dated November 6, 2018, is an accurate response … to Gerry Serrano in which he requested cash outs beyond the POA MOU provisions.”

Valentin said he denied the 2018 request, “as did ultimately the then City Manager Raul Godinez.”

His statement doesn’t address Serrano’s 2017 cash out.

The chief’s letter to Serrano is two years old, but its recent disclosure and the assertions made in it come just as Voice of OC recently reported on a set of federal grand jury subpoenas within the last year seeking information about Serrano and the police union.

Serrano in a letter to union members maintains the federal inquiry is solely about the union’s medical trust for retirees. 

To incoming, newly-elected City Council members about to oversee these facets of their government, Valentin’s letter continues an ongoing conversation about the need for increased oversight over City Hall and law enforcement’s intake of precious city dollars. 

While Councilwoman-elect Jessie Lopez limited her remarks about the memo, saying it was the first time she heard about it, she said the continual “hemorrhaging of public money” to police officers over parks and libraries “speaks to the culture that we have here in Santa Ana.”

A culture, she said, of “accepting — prioritizing — the wellbeing of people in uniform over our community members. And when I say that, I don’t mean they’re not important, but especially now in the context of COVID-19 … this cannot go on anymore. We can’t continue to rob our children the way the city’s been functioning for so long.”

Hernandez, asked about the police union contract’s special provision releasing Serrano from his duties while earning full salary, said “it isn’t fair for the city to have so many city departments struggling and have this one exception. The union, it’s contract, has very much a stronghold on our city.”

City officials have defended police spending as key to keeping the department competitive in hiring officers and filling vacancies to meet the city’s calls for service. 

And council members have said their investment in youth areas aren’t nonexistent. 

For example, the city on a yearly basis makes money from its tax on local pot shops — more than $3 million of which will go, this year, to things like library laptop dispensers, soccer field renovations, and WiFi hotspots, according to a Dec. 1 city report.

Yet if the factual claims made in Valentin’s memo are true, Councilman-elect Johnathan Hernandez said, “this is part of what has bothered me the most about the city … this is business as usual in Santa Ana.”

Councilwoman-elect Thai Viet Phan also limited her remarks about the memo, citing a need for more information about it. But, she said, if true, it at least warrants further inquiry.

“If there really is something wrong here, who is the one doing oversight on that issue? And if that’s the case, why is it not being addressed?” she said. “I hope these are questions we can all ask and get answers to and I’m hopeful that with his new council, we can.”

Every year, on top of their annual salaries, police department employees are allowed and entitled to take a cash out payment for holiday or vacation time they haven’t used, so long as the payment amount is appropriate under that given year’s labor contract.

Yet that wasn’t the case for Serrano in 2017, Valentin’s memo asserts.

It seems City Hall leaders responsible for authorizing the payouts are no longer around. 

The Interim City Manager, Finance Director and Personnel Director serving at that time “are no longer employed by the City,” Valentin wrote. 

And there aren’t any records, he goes on to say, “of the reasoning used by those individuals to exceed the authority granted to them.”

Under the union’s current contract with the city, Serrano is released from his sergeant duties, while remaining a department employee and receiving his full city salary, plus premium pay equivalent to an additional 35 percent of his salary.

Serrano’s rise to the top of the union has made him one of City Hall’s more influential and well-known figures. 

In 2019, a largely union-backed City Council approved controversial pay raises for police officers. 

Republican former council member Ceci Iglesias was one of the dais’ lone opponents to those raises — igniting a public battle between her and Serrano that culminated in her ouster thanks to a successful recall effort financed mainly by the police union.

And the City Council since then has only increased police spending in the taxpayer-funded budget, even when police conceded on portions of their contractual raises this year to soften the Coronavirus pandemic’s financial blow to city coffers.

It’s been four and a half years since Serrano took charge and the union started spending more heavily on citywide elections.

So far, the union has seen results. 

Staff writer Nick Gerda contributed reporting.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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