No city manager or police chief.
That’s the situation Santa Ana politicians now find themselves in, with City Manager Kristine Ridge and Police Chief David Valentin either headed for or now out the door.
While in their positions, both Valentin and Ridge publicly stood up to the most controversial interest group in town: The Santa Ana Police Officers Association and its former leader, Gerry Serrano.
And subsequently found themselves in Serrano’s crosshairs.
Their exits this year come amidst an increasing City Council divide on issues like policing and rent control – one fueled by police union alliances in some instances and competing attempts by council members to paint their colleagues as backroom dealers.
With an upcoming police union-backed recall election – and major policy movements around police oversight, noncitizen voting, and rent control – one of Orange County’s largest cities now finds itself in a search for executive replacements.
And in parting remarks to his employees this month, the outgoing chief warned of “corrupt and compromised politicians.”
“Think about your police chief saying that,” said City Councilmember and police union critic Jessie Lopez in a Tuesday phone interview, reacting to the departure. “About the chief of police saying, ‘I’ve had enough harassment.’”
Lopez has also found herself in the police union’s crosshairs – now the subject of a Nov. 14 recall election that the union has so far funded with $463,000, after she voted to impose a pay raise on officers that went below the union’s demands in December last year.
The recall has driven an even further wedge between Lopez and council members across the dais with police union backing – David Penaloza, Phil Bacerra, and Mayor Valerie Amezcua — after tense debate over whether to even certify the recall petition at public meetings.
Leading up to the departures, Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez publicly accused police union-backed Mayor Valerie Amezcua of attempting to whip up council opposition to Ridge and Valentin.
Amezcua, who did not respond to a request for comment as of Wednesday, has denied any wrongdoing in response to Hernandez’s claims at multiple public meetings in August. She has also denied being unduly influenced by the police union.
“I’m deeply saddened to witness the instability caused by the sudden departure of the City Manager and Chief of Police,” said Amezcua’s predecessor, former mayor and now Orange County Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento in a Wednesday written statement.
He added, “The pending recall against Mayor Pro Tem Jessie Lopez will only further exacerbate this uncertainty.”
Earlier in the summer, Serrano – the police union leader – also parted ways with the city, capping seven years of aggressive city elections spending, efforts to unseat officials critical of massive raises, and charges by city executives of intimidation campaigns under his helm – even public comparisons to “organized crime.”
Toward the end of his tenure, Serrano mounted a quest for a public pension boost, despite his full time release from police work while he steered the labor union, which city leaders said would be improper.
That quest became a legal attack on City Hall when staff resisted, which Ridge described in a memo as an effort to “burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants.”
That led Serrano, who did not respond to requests for comment as of Wednesday, down a path of hurling numerous and largely unsuccessful lawsuits against Ridge and Valentin, alleging impropriety and abuse of power.
Sarmiento, in his written statement, said Santa Ana’s situation makes “prophetic” the Serrano’s “assertion that he would ‘burn the city to the ground.’”
Hairo Cortes, the founder and executive director of Santa Ana activist group Chispa, said residents are seeing two competing visions for the city play out on the council dais.
One side, he said, has focused on building a policymaking framework that includes things like housing protections and police oversight – things he said “didn’t happen for decades despite that being a need among residents” – and another side of the council that has resisted those proposals.
Cortes said the upcoming recall election could tip the balance of power between the two.
“It’s two competing visions for the city that are at stake here.”
Councilmembers Lopez, Hernandez, Penaloza, and Ben Vazquez all issued responses to the two City Hall departures this week.
Requests for comment to Bacerra and Mayor Amezcua went unreturned as of Wednesday. Councilmember Thai Viet Phan, who often straddles the line between both council factions but has been vocally critical of the union — and was the subject of a similar police union recall effort which failed to advance this year — declined to comment.
Penaloza, in a text message, issued praise for the outgoing chief:
“Our police department under Chief Valentin has grown and developed so much and is light years ahead of other comparable departments when it comes to transparency, accountability, and implementing best practice policy.”
After a 33-year career, namely in the county’s most population-dense and working-class central region, Valentin’s announcement made sense to law enforcement veterans like Juan Villegas, a former City Council member who held office between 2016 and 2020.
“He served 33 years. I can understand him pulling the plug,” Villegas said.
In written parting remarks to his employees, a section stands out. In it, Valentin offers himself as an example of how to lead in the face of “corrupt and compromised politicians” and “compromised staff.”
Villegas said Valentin is a rare case of a police chief leaving Santa Ana in “good standing” – “the outstanding record he has … He was the only chief born and raised in Santa Ana, you know.”
Before Serrano’s pension controversy had Valentin fighting off court battles, the chief internally flagged compensation issues with the union boss, raising questions in 2018 about whether Serrano scored excessive cash-outs for unused time off from City Hall.
And while Serrano’s challenges to Valentin were either dismissed or rejected by the courts and the state Attorney General, they still spelled headaches, like a department loyalty battle and a 2021 announcement by Serrano that the police union made a vote of “No Confidence” in Valentin.
Valentin’s retirement — “I get that,” said Villegas.
“But the city manager? That one threw me for a loop.”
Not more than two weeks after Valentin’s announcement, and with no public discussion beyond an announcement, City Council members at a Monday special closed-door meeting approved the resignation of City Manager Ridge, as well as a release and severance agreement that the city has not yet made public.
Voice of OC has made a Public Records Act request for the agreement.
“The way she (Ridge) carried herself, the way she handled questions from them (council members) – I see her exit as somewhat of a detriment,” said Manuel Delgadillo, a police union member who has been publicly critical of Serrano and the police union’s involvement in local politics.
Delgadillo said Ridge is “Someone very difficult to replace – This lady, to me, is light years ahead the way she handles business at City Hall.”
Council members this week had nothing but praise for Ridge as well.
Penaloza, in his text message, said, “Santa Ana is a better place to live, work, and play” because of Ridge’s “wonderful leadership and she will be missed greatly.”
Council member Ben Vazquez, a police union critic, also responded with a text message:
“I thank her for her service and wish her the very best. She has been helpful in the first few months of me being in office and I very much appreciate her stewardship of the city.”
Why The Abrupt Resignation?
The exact circumstances of Ridge’s resignation remain unclear, with council members who did speak to Voice of OC declining to get specific, citing the legal binds of closed-session city discussions.
“I’m prohibited legally from disclosing any information about the details of the settlement,” Lopez said in a Tuesday phone interview.
But Lopez said she thinks residents will read the signs: “The timing is not a coincidence.”
“I think residents are smart enough to realize that this is just history repeating itself.”
In 2017, Santa Ana similarly saw proximate departures of its city manager and police chief, which the latter of whom, Carlos Rojas, later claimed was part of a concerted effort by Serrano and union-backed council members to push him out of City Hall after whistleblowing on alleged illegal activity.
In 2020, the police union also successfully recalled a Republican council member, Cecilia Iglesias, after she voiced public opposition to $25 million in police salary increases over three years, in a working-class city facing a structural deficit and OC’s highest sales tax.
In August, the issue of Ridge’s employment became a public dispute between the police union-backed mayor, Amezcua, and Councilmember Hernandez, a vocal police union critic.
During the Aug. 1 meeting, Hernandez publicly announced his filing of an ethics complaint which alleged that Amezcua, in a one-on-one meeting, attempted to use the 2021 police killing of his cousin to turn Hernandez against Valentin politically.
Hernandez also alleged that Amezcua tried to violate state public meeting laws and gather council support for removing the automatic contract renewal clause in Ridge’s employment agreement.
Amezcua denied wrongdoing in response to Hernandez’s claims at multiple public meetings in August.
Hernandez, meanwhile, faces his own ethics complaint from the City Manager’s office, which city leaders have yet to make public. Hernandez made his own complaint against Amezcua public.
Reached for comment on Tuesday, Hernandez said, “The current state of affairs at City Hall is like nothing I’ve seen during my tenure.”
Police union-backing tends to mark the split between council members on issues like public safety and police spending.
But it’s spilled into different policy debates like housing and community centers, with opposing voting blocs largely drawn along the same lines. Advocates for Lopez’s and Phan’s police union-funded recall cited their support for rent control as a motivator.
The divide was apparent at the council’s most recent regular meeting on Oct. 3, when pro-rent control council members pushed to protect the citywide rent control ordinance from future anti-rent control council majorities.
Council members Penaloza and Bacerra, who with Amezcua oppose rent control, voiced concern that the proposals in front of them that night didn’t reflect prior council discussions – leading them to raise the specter of backroom deal making by their colleagues.
That, in turn, led City Attorney Sonia Carvalho to voice objection to the picture being painted that night – one which she said would infer she was conspiring with the pro-rent control council majority to go around the backs of the council minority.
Carvalho, that night, called the notion “100% absolutely wrong,”
“You don’t trust that to be true? Then you should ask me to leave,” Carvalho said into the microphone, in a rare public rebuke from a city staff member.
Lopez said Santa Ana’s political environment has put immense distance between seats on Santa Ana’s policymaking dais.
“You’re seeing a very clear divide in how we even interact with one another.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @brandonphooo.