It was a night of wins and losses for different initiatives championed by Santa Ana residents.
A new city budget, finalized unanimously by City Council members on Tuesday, paves the way for ongoing and further legal protections for undocumented residents and the first-ever Vietnamese community liaison to service a long-neglected city demographic.
But it also leaves out requests by transgender community leaders for housing and health care assistance on the same night the council declared June as LGBTQ+ Pride Month in the city. The ‘T’ in that acronym represents trans people.
The new budget also lacked the major police funding reallocation that some community groups have for years called for.
Last November, some Santa Ana residents saw hope for a citywide funding shift from three people who gained seats on the City Council — people who seemed to reflect activists’ calls for an end to officials’ years-long tradition of giving most taxpayer dollars to police.
That didn’t happen this year, when it came time for those council members — Jessie Lopez, Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, and Mayor Vicente Sarmiento — to vote on Santa Ana’s first new budget since their election.
Instead, they joined their colleagues Phil Bacerra, Nelida Mendoza, David Penaloza and Thai Viet Phan in not only funding the police miles above other areas like parks and libraries, but in approving a police spending budget that swelled to $141 million in taxpayer money compared to last year’s adopted $134 million.
‘How Are You Any Different?’
Contractual obligations for existing services that prior council members approved are driving this year’s police spending increase — something that current council members, wary of the notion of a police spending increase, often pointed to during the recent budget process.
That drew scorn from public speakers like resident Courtney Calderon:
“People’s basic needs, such as housing, are not being met, and it’s ridiculous for you to use any policies or any legal terms as a justification for you not doing your job. You’re failing the youth that got you elected, got you into your job, how are you any different?”
Calderon said it’s one thing “to claim you believe in something,” but another to “fight for it.”
Though it appears, at some later point, a fraction of the police department’s Metro Division budget — $1.1 million of it — could be “reprogrammed” for youth investment, according to city staff who weren’t certain just yet where else the money could go.
City Manager Kristine Ridge told council members the money would sit in the department’s budget until staff could find another use for it.
Staff also said they could study ways to spend more cannabis sales tax revenue on youth services, rather than law enforcement. That would come back to the council at some later point for a vote.
Bacerra, like he did during the budget’s first reading on June 3, pushed back on many of the public commenters’ protests against police spending. He, Penaloza, and Mendoza often take the strongest pro-police stances when it comes to these debates on the dais.
“For some of the comments tonight that talk about protecting our impoverished residents — when they say that, they’re not talking about families that are victimized,” he said.
He continued: “They’re talking about folks that yes, we have a system today where there are folks that could use a little more help or be steered right, but what we forget to acknowledge is there are victims in our city.”
“There are good hardworking families, and they want to be able to call the police, they want that service,” he said.
Yet the notion of even studying day-to-day police activity in the city — namely, to find out whether police traffic stops are actually preventing greater crimes or just targeting low-hanging fruit, the city’s most disadvantaged residents — started a bitter back-and-forth among council members.
Trouble on the Dais
“Im 100% in support of our police department enforcing all vehicle (stops),” said Penaloza, who argued every driver agrees to road safety laws around speeding, expired tags and broken tail lights when they get their driver’s license.
He later called the potential traffic study “crazy research” and questioned whether it was an initiative the entire council supported during the budget process, raising the specter of non-transparent maneuvers by council members who supported the idea — like Sarmiento, Lopez and Hernandez — to push it through in the budget.
Sarmiento rejected the claim, saying he and council members Lopez and Hernandez previously voiced support for the study, pointing to the last meeting in which issues around traffic stop enforcement — and council members’ concerns about it — were discussed at length.
The study would seek to obtain traffic stop enforcement data that city staff said on Tuesday they did not have.
Penaloza spoke over him: “You don’t need to counter everything people say.”
“I simply think it (the study) is a good idea now, at this point, if the city manager brings back this information … You can’t reference something and not expect a response,” Sarmiento said.
“Well, agendize it,” Penaloza said. “Be transparent and agendize it.”
“Mayor Pro Tem, please quit interrupting me, nobody interrupted you,” Sarmiento continued as Penaloza kept speaking. “I’m chairing (the meeting).”
“Well, do a better job,” Penaloza said.
Sarmiento turned his head to Penaloza, pausing for a moment before he said, “Now you’re just being petty.”
Bacerra came to Penaloza’s aid, calling his criticism “spot on” and saying “it’s not transparent to try to shoehorn policy into a fiscal exercise (like the budget).”
“It’s difficult to be non-transparent when we talk about these things in a full open session, I don’t know where the lack of transparency is,” Sarmiento said.
Trans Community Left Out During Pride Month
On the same night City Council members proclaimed the month of June as “LGBTQ Pride Month,” their budget left out repeated demands by transgender people in Santa Ana.
Members of this community have been calling for things like assistance in finding housing and proper health care — things that trans people across the U.S. have long faced barriers to.
Trans people also struggle to get proper health care in the U.S. due to factors like a lack of insurance, unemployment and homelessness, according to the National Center for Transgender equality.
Their demands weren’t made off the cuff.
At three meetings between June and last month, members of the community — organized by Santa Ana trans advocacy group Alianza Translatinx — repeatedly asked the council to find some money for them either in their new, major influx of American Rescue Plan Act money or in the budget.
At none of those meetings did council members specifically ask staff to find ways of doing so.
“I have not seen the services that I need as a transgender woman living in Santa Ana for the past 21 years. I need hormone replacement therapy. I once needed housing resources, and I know today we have transgender people sleeping on the streets,” said Khloe Rios-Wyatt, a leader at Alianza Translatinx, during public comment on Tuesday night.
Rios-Wyatt, rousing audience applause and cheers among activists who filled the meeting chambers on Tuesday, drew a delineation between support and aid:
“It’s great to paint rainbows on the crosswalks or spell out the letters ‘LGBTQ’ on major boulevards, but does that feed hungry trans people? … I invite you to rethink how you want to show your ‘Pride’ and invest in transgender lives now.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.