With a crowd gathered at the steps of City Hall, several elected Santa Ana officials on Monday described a “coercion and blackmail” problem at their local police union.

The declarations were made under the threat of rain that cloudy morning, as two City Council members in attendance – Jessie Lopez and Thai Viet Phan – currently face recall campaigns for supporting a December labor contract that went against the officer union’s pay-raise proposals.

It also forced the union’s president, Gerry Serrano, to spend half his time doing police work instead of solely working union duties. 

The union under Serrano became one of the most aggressive political players in citywide elections since 2016, and enjoyed a favorable council majority, getting as much as $25 million in police raises in 2019, until 2020, when progressives won four council seats.

Without enough City Hall support to boost his public pension benefits, and making adversaries out of the city staffers who – citing state law – refused to help, Serrano in recent years filed lawsuits and claims painting City Hall impropriety, part of what officials described as a campaign to “burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants.”

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

“Mr. Serrano refuses to understand that I will not be coerced into voting any way that he wants me to,” said Lopez at the Monday news conference. “That I work for Ward 3 residents – not him.”

She added that, should the union gather enough signatures to put the recall before voters, an election would cost taxpayers dearly.

“That is $1 million that is not going to fix the snack bar at Riverview Park. That is $1 million that is not going to renovate the bathrooms at Portola Park. That is $1 million that is not going to go into fixing our sidewalks or the potholes in our streets. That is $1 million that is not going to go into supporting our local artists community or after school programs.”

The microphone went to Phan, who compared the recall effort with a previous effort by landlords and real estate interests to repeal a rent control policy she and Lopez both supported.

“We will not let Gerry Serrano and greedy corporate landlords coerce us or blackmail us into doing what he thinks he can get,” Phan said. 

Santa Ana Mayor Pro Tem Jessie Lopez, left, and Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan, right, walk to the City Hall news conference on Jan. 30, 2023. Both Santa Ana City Councilmembers are facing recalls by the Santa Ana Police Union. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Requests for comment to Serrano on Monday went unreturned. 

The recall committee’s chairman, a Santa Ana resident named Tim Rush, cited the 2021 rent control policy as one of the campaign’s main motivators.

“All of us have taken a hit on our property values because of this position of rent control and just cause evictions — we’re the only city in the county to have it,” said Rush, who also publicly advocated for the union’s successful recall campaign against Ceci Iglesias in 2020..

He said there’s support for the recall in “folks who own real estate” and “neighborhood leaders,” who he said are troubled by the council’s “giveaway programs.” 

Asked who specifically has voiced their support, Rush said “most of the larger neighborhood associations are 501(c)(3) nonprofits, so they’re reluctant to dabble in politics per se, but I can tell you there’s an awful lot of neighborhood leaders disappointed with the actions of these two council members.”

“We made Santa Ana more affordable for Santa Ana residents,” Phan said at City Hall on Monday. “And now they’re trying to recall us.”

[Read: Santa Ana Recall Debate Centers Issues of Public Safety, Special Interests, Budget]

Councilmember Thai Viet Phan poses for a photo with supporters outside City Hall on Monday. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Lopez said this isn’t the first time Serrano has come after women in the chamber.

“We are two strong women that are supported by our community that won an election fairly,” she said, calling the recall efforts “political retribution” targeting women of the council for “voting in the best interests of the residents.”

Rush responded to this with the following: “​​This recall has nothing to do, as they assert, with them being women of color.”

Asked why recall committees weren’t set up for the male council members who supported the December contract, Rush said “there’s only so much room on the plate.” 

“If we can get two new council members, we can get to four and get some change,” Rush said.

Flanked by a sign bearing her name, Phan said Serrano “thinks he can have someone on that dais who will do what he wants. He believes this because he tried it … in 2020 and removed a council member.”

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.

[Read: Early Santa Ana Recall Election Results Signal Ouster for City Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias]

“And now he’s trying it again,” Phan said.

Jessie Lopez (left) speaks with a host of local political and civic leaders at her side. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Other speakers included Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, Democratic Party of Orange County Chair Ada Briceño, as well as former mayor and current county Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento. 

Also in attendance was the former police union president and longtime officer, John Franks, who sued the city in 2019, claiming the union retaliated against him for not going along with a “scheme” to oust a former police chief, Carlos Rojas. 

He’s one of a few officers and former union members who criticized Serrano’s leadership, and silently watched the Monday news conference from the back of the crowd.

One police union-backed council member, Phil Bacerra, declined to comment on the Monday news conference. Councilmember David Penaloza and Mayor Valerie Amezcua did not respond to requests for comment.

After rejecting various proposed officer raises, one of which would’ve cost the city around $25 million, the council majority on Dec. 20 voted to force a ‘Last, Best and Final Offer’ of a 3% raise over 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.

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.

From City Hall on Monday, Phan said Serrano “You “cannot force us to do something that is against our community’s interests.” 

“We will win and we will show them exactly what it means to be a leader.”

“This isn’t about these council members being anti-labor,” said her council colleague at the event, Jonathan Ryan Hernandez. “This is about … recognizing that this union is starting to look like organized crime.” 

“This is not a union anymore.”

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.