After spending $371,000 on political campaigning, racking up $15,000 in debt, and apparently losing its leader of seven years, Santa Ana’s police union is closer than ever to putting the fate of one of its most vocal City Council critics before voters.

For now, however, City Council members deadlocked on setting an election date at their regular meeting on Tuesday night.

That means it comes back at their next meeting on Aug. 15, after which, if they deadlock again, county elections officials could make the decision for them.

It comes after police union-sponsored recall canvassers filed enough petition signatures with City Hall in June — and qualified in July by a margin of 10 signatures — to prompt a recall election of Councilmember Jessie Lopez, which City Hall estimates to cost anywhere between $607,000 and $666,000.

But there weren’t enough votes to make it official yet on Tuesday, after three of Lopez’ allies refused to vote in favor of moving forward. 

They painted the recall as a police union effort to mislead residents and buy a new city council majority, one which could carry out the union’s wishes, after Lopez and other council progressives voted against union pay raise demands for officers in December, while other proponents cited her support of issues like citywide rent control.

Lopez stepped away from the dais to avoid a conflicted vote.

Santa Ana Mayor Pro Tem Jessie Lopez during a media press conference on Jan. 30, 2023. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“There is a police union who thinks that not only can they take a bulk, majority of our budget, but they should also control who are the decision makers – who are the lawmakers that create policy that our police officers then have to abide by,” said Council Member Johnathan Ryan Hernandez on Tuesday night. 

He continued, “We would never see the Army control the FBI or control the state. But here in local cities we are seeing police unions attempt to control local government.”  

The recall effort started in the wake of a high-profile battle between top City Hall management and the union’s years-long and embattled president, Gerry Serrano, who officially separated from the city on Monday.

[Read: Santa Ana City Hall Parts Ways With Controversial Police Union Leader]

A big contention was Serrano’s public quest for a pension boost – despite doing no actual police work for the city as a police union president on police union duties.

It turned into what city employees called an effort to “burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants,” and brought him to largely unsuccessful legal blows with people like Police Chief David Valentin. 

[Read: AG Declines to File Charges Against Santa Ana Police Chief After Police Union Boss’ Claims]

But Lopez’s allies – Councilmembers Hernandez, Ben Vazquez, and Thai Viet Phan – cited another reason for not moving forward with the recall certification on Tuesday: 

Just hours earlier, a lawsuit was filed seeking to stop the recall election from moving forward, said City Attorney Sonia Carvahlo that night without naming the plaintiff, Santa Ana resident Albert Castillo. No one else on the dais did either. 

Phan – a fellow police union recall target – urged her colleagues to wait on the matter until their next August 15 meeting, for more input from the City Attorney on what Phan deemed a potential legal wrench.

“At this point it seems like a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Phan said of the recall. “What are we going to get? What we are going to get is the same type of confusion, waste of residents’, city staff’s and everyone’s time.” 

On the other hand, an equal number of police union allies on the council – David Penaloza, Phil Bacerra and Mayor Valerie Amezcua – supported moving forward and setting a date for Lopez’s recall election that night.

They likened the lawsuit to a last-ditch stalling effort for an election that could not be stopped and that the county Registrar of Voters, Bob Page, would ultimately set a date for them under state law if they took no action themselves.

When Phan said state law allowed for a two-week continuance, Bacerra responded: 

“One thing also allowed under the law is to abdicate our responsibility and give it to the Registrar of Voters.” 

At one point, before the vote, Penaloza sought a favorable legal opinion from City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, that they move forward with the recall election despite the lawsuit. 

He referenced a conversation they had earlier in the day, in which Carvalho was apparently willing to give an opinion on the lawsuit during the council’s earlier closed-door session meant for legal matters, which takes place before the public session.

“Madam City Attorney, earlier in the day when you first brought this up to me, you mentioned that you would still recommend moving forward tonight, or has that changed?” Penaloza asked.

In response, Carvalho smiled and said, “Do you want my opinion in public? I was willing to go into closed session.”

Mayor Amezcua interjected:

“No. We’re not going to – we said no. As you said. I mean, we voted earlier and I don’t want to step out of line like that. We did vote earlier on this item,” Amezcua said, referring to the closed session. “And you weren’t here yet, council member Phan, so we voted, made a decision, so let’s move forward.”

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.