It’s been a problem for years if you ask some Santa Ana officials, but the question only played out in public last week. 

Can Santa Ana City Councilmembers keep confidential police contract details from leaking to the union?

Councilmember Jessie Lopez first asked that in front of residents at the council’s regular Oct. 4 meeting, where she claimed one or more of her dais colleagues have passed sensitive information to police union president Gerry Serrano during City Hall discussions involving labor.

The discussion kicked off several public revelations, with council members saying the leaks have been happening for years, despite warnings from the city attorney and unsuccessful measures to stop the problem.

In a phone interview, Councilmember Nelida Mendoza even recalled her colleagues once suggesting they “sweep the room” during one such closed meeting, but couldn’t give specifics.

‘Direct Knowledge’

“It hasn’t just happened once,” Lopez said, echoing what she earlier claimed in an agenda packet attached to the meeting. 

In it, Lopez laid out three dates in which details improperly reached Serrano out of confidential council discussions. 

Two were in February last year, where council members mulled over how involved the city should get in Serrano’s controversial pension boost efforts with CalPERS, the state’s public employee pension system.

[Read: Santa Ana Officials: Police Union Boss Threatens to ‘Burn the Place Down’ to Boost His Pension]

“Shortly after these closed session discussions [on Feb. 2 and 16 that year], and before any public actions were taken, Gerry Serrano had knowledge of the City’s direction and expressed his anger with council members and staff,” reads Lopez’s report.

And in August this year, Lopez said Serrano indicated “specific and direct knowledge about the City’s negotiations strategy” during contract bargaining with the union. 

Phone, email and text messages seeking comment from Serrano went unreturned Tuesday. 

Such labor discussions – which can shape a police officer’s salary, and at what cost it will come to taxpayers – happen in what’s known as closed session meetings. They aren’t public and are narrowly allowed under state open meetings laws. 

But labor contacts aren’t required to be secretly negotiated, said City Attorney Sonia Carvalho that Tuesday.  

Lopez thus proposed to move City Hall’s labor negotiations with the police union – what’s considered the most powerful union in city politics – into open public meetings. 

City staff said the idea to publicize police union bargaining is doable, and not unprecedented. But their full analysis of the concept will have to come back to the council at a later date. 

A majority of council members – Lopez, Jonathan Ryan Hernandez, Thai Viet Phan and Mayor Vicente Sarmiento – voiced support for the idea coming back as a proposal. 

“The city is in negotiations with a lot of different bargaining units and it’s unfair for one to have access to information in a way that no other unit does,” Lopez said at last week’s meeting. 

“I don’t think that it’s in the best interest of the city for maybe a council member or members to turn around or make their own deals in exchange for information,” she added, “or to undermine our own staff when choosing to disclose confidential privileged information that’s supposed to stay in closed session.”

She didn’t say who leaked the information or request a city probe to determine who exactly it might be. She said hard evidence to her claims would be tough to uncover with city resources, given the advancement of encrypted messaging technology. 

“I don’t think that you’re going to see anyone up here go, ‘Yes, I’m sorry I did this,’” Lopez said.

But the concerns have been around for the last several years, largely in private. And several colleagues echoed her claims throughout the evening, also without naming names.  

A ‘Criminal’ Act

Councilmember Thai Viet Phan revealed the council’s even taken certain “measures” in “the last two years” to stop the leaks at the closed door meetings.  

“It has not worked.”

Sarmiento said the council’s been “admonished” for “sharing information at closed session. I believe we’ve signed pledges we wouldn’t.”

He called the alleged acts “criminal.” 

“We can make our own deductions of where (the information’s) coming from, but it’s not too difficult to see if you just follow things,” Sarmiento said, referring to the police union’s endorsements and political campaign spending. 

The allegations set off a tense back-and-forth across the dais at last Tuesday’s meeting. 

Councilmember Phil Bacerra, one official who the union sent out mailers in support of this election cycle, shot back at the mayor’s comments: 

“As far as this notion that, by receiving any sort of resources from the POA automatically indicates that certain behavior is being conducted? Well that’s insane. And by the way mayor, born-again progressive, didn’t you receive the POA endorsement many times In your political career. But now all of a sudden you don’t so now everybody who takes it is bad?”

Bacerra deemed the move as “nothing more than targeting the men and women in our police department. That’s what this is. Let’s just be clear.”

He also proclaimed the open session police union bargaining idea as “anti-labor,” adding “this was something done in Costa Mesa by very staunch conservatives who were very anti-labor and again, if you apply this to any union, apply this across the board to be fair.”

A Guessing Game

Bacerra publicly denied that Lopez’s claim applied to him at the meeting: “Obviously, if there was somebody up here engaging in that behavior they’re not going to jump out and say it. But I can tell you if you need to hear it from me – I’m not.”

David Penaloza, another councilmember who the union sent out supportive mailers for, denied being the subject of Lopez’s allegations in a Tuesday phone interview. 

“I have never ever leaked any closed session information to anybody outside that room. Nobody that should not be in there. Never done any of that. Never have, never will,” he said, adding “there’s definitely a troubling pattern of information being leaked from closed sessions. I’ve been a victim of it multiple times, some involving the POA and some involving other litigation matters.”

Mendoza, who was first elected after a police union-funded recall campaign against her predecessor, Ceci Iglesias, denied being involved in a follow-up call. 

“As far as the leak – that could have come from anywhere. We have staff in the confidential session. People in zoom who could have someone else in the room with them,” Mendoza said in a Tuesday phone interview.

At the dais, Lopez denied engaging in leaks. Sarmiento, Phan and Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez all supported Lopez’s proposal and denied leaking information to the union. Phan did so at the dais. Sarmiento and Hernandez did so in Tuesday phone interviews and text messages. 

During the Oct. 4 meeting, council members who supported Lopez’s proposal rejected the anti-police labels by Penaloza and Bacerra.

“That is a ridiculous, offensive, disrespectful and completely erroneous comment and it is reckless,” Sarmiento said, looking at Penaloza. “Those of you who are funded by this union often through your campaigns – look, maybe there’s a reason why you’re opposed.”

Lopez and Phan both cited their own familial ties to law enforcement. 

Phan called it “really difficult” to know “you’re walking into a room to discuss items and issues that are supposed to be confidential, literally being provided to the opposing party.” 

“You lose trust in the people you work with and we all know violations of the Brown Act are extremely difficult to confirm unless you have something in writing in text or email,” Phan said, adding “the next best thing is to make it public.” 

She continued: 

“This is not a police issue — not because it’s the POA – it could’ve been any bargaining unit. But what we have is one bargaining unit that’s being provided with confidential and privileged information that none of the other bargaining units are receiving. That’s the distinction.” 

“That is the problem.”

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