An escalating conflict between City Hall leaders and the union representing Santa Ana police officers has kicked off campaigns to unseat two City Council members.

It comes after a majority of council members last month approved a 3% pay raise for police officers and slashed the arrangement for their union’s president, Gerry Serrano, of full-time release from police work while he steered the association.

That will force Serrano, who did not respond to a request for comment on Monday, to spend part of his time performing actual police duties for a department whose chief has become an adversary — a department which Santa Ana’s new mayor recently described as having a “cancer.”

“Yes, there’s a cancer going on in this police department,” said Mayor Valerie Amezcua during the December meeting, describing divided loyalties at the agency. “Some officers over here and some officers over here. That has bled into our community … and I don’t need to name names because they’re on both sides.”

After rejecting various proposed officer raises, one of which would’ve cost the city around $25 million, City Council members on Dec. 20 voted to force a ‘Last, Best and Final Offer’ of 3% on a one year contract, which the city estimates to cost a total of $1.23 million.

The city will also take over police officers’ medical, dental and long-term disability insurance benefits, and cease its retiree health contributions to the union.

The decision followed a tumultuous year of contract bargaining between city officials and the union, which started in late 2021 and entered an impasse last August, as city officials deemed the union’s proposals regressive and their bargaining tactics dilatory.

Meanwhile, Serrano fought top city leaders on another front: His wish for a pension boost. 

After officials initially refused to count his union work toward his pension, citing public employee pension law, he filed legal claims painting a picture of City Hall impropriety and then lawsuits. He focused on two executives: City Manager Kristine Ridge, and Police Chief David Valentin.

City officials described it as a pressure campaign, a threat to “burn the city to the ground” unless Serrano’s demands were met to collect increased retirement benefits. 

Facing resistance, Serrano sought other avenues, like State Treasurer Fiona Ma, and continued his challenges to City Hall leaders – with impacts most recently described in a letter last month to council members from Police Chief Valentin:

“I want to be clear this has been a historical, pervasive and well documented problem to our workforce,” wrote Valentin in a Dec. 28 email. “This insurrection of words, following false and frivolous legal actions, complaints, grievances, etc., under the alleged cloak of ‘employee advocacy/representation,’ continue to harm many good hard working employees in and out of the POA.”

The day after the council’s contract vote, Serrano described the move to union members as a “cataclysmic” event.

“Is this legal? Put aside the fact they cut my salary by 30%, without a full-time President, this Association will cease to function as your effective representative,” he wrote in a Dec. 21 letter to union members. 

Since then, Serrano has “unsuccessfully sought relief in State court and from PERB,” reads a statement from city spokesperson Paul Eakins. “He was initially denied a restraining order by a State court and was twice denied requests for injunctive relief from PERB. The State court hearing is on Jan. 30 and the PERB hearing starts on March 20.”

Serrano, in his letter to membership, called it “evident” from the Dec. 20 meeting “which councilmembers are hardcore anti-public safety.”

Now recall campaign committees have opened against two on the dais who voted to impose the city’s final offer: Jessie Lopez and Thai Viet Phan. 

State-required campaign filings show the two committees registered with the city on Dec. 29. 

Neither council member expressed shock at the recall filings in phone interviews on Monday.

“All they (police union leaders) care about is having council members vote exactly how they want, when they want and that’s just not who I am,” said Phan. “It’s the same tactics they’ve used since 2016.”

In 2020, a recall campaign funded by the police union successfully unseated former council member Ceci Iglesias, who with former colleague Juan Villegas publicly decried $25 million in enhanced police salaries passed in 2019 by a union-backed majority.

Lopez said union leaders “understand they only need four votes for a $25 million contract, or to fire the city manager and police chief,” and that the ongoing conflict with the union has “escalated to the point of coercion.”

“It’s not a coincidence they went after two young women when there were four council members who voted on this,” Phan said.

The December contract vote, however, wasn’t unanimous, with three police union-backed council members – Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza, and Mayor Valerie Amezcua – voting against the contract in favor of going back to negotiations.

“When I look at what is on here today, we are trying to, through this offer, dictate the organization of a labor union … we’re basically saying this is something you had for 30 years and we are changing that now,” said Bacerra. “I philosophically just cannot support anything that does that.”

He said he would have supported an attempt to bring the union back to the bargaining table, but called the offer before him “a poison pill.”

“If we’re gonna look at being fair and equitable  … let’s start at the top,” said Amezcua. “If we’re going to give a raise, we’re going to give what’s deserving of our employees because happy employees do good work.”

In combating Serrano’s public statements and accusations, City Manager Kristine Ridge made her own attempt to reach his membership in a Dec. 29 letter.

“The accusation that certain council members and I are anti-union and anti-public safety as allegedly evidenced by our opposition to the last POA contract is nonsensical,” Ridge wrote. “None of us were at the City when that contract was approved.”

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