Orange County’s first and only citywide rent control ordinance will get a second opinion from voters in next year’s general election.
As Santa Ana’s 3% cap on yearly rental increases faces legal challenges by landlord advocates, a majority of City Council members on Tuesday voted to seek public input on the issue – putting their historic 2021 law on the November 2024 ballot.
The rent control issue, among others, has constantly dragged the council into angry debates this year, which on Tuesday seemingly crossed from professional to personal – pitting one council faction with a social welfare platform against a faction supported by property owner interests and the police union.
Tuesday’s meeting came in the shadow of an upcoming police union-funded recall election against a sitting council member, Jessie Lopez — a recall whose proponents have also cited Lopez’s support for rent control — and amidst the sudden announced departures of the city manager and police chief.
And that night, what started as a discussion about two ballot measures devolved into increasingly tense political exchanges amongst council members that spilled into unrelated issues.
“We have seen how this city is being torn apart,” said Council Member Ben Vazquez at one point during the meeting, as emotions also flared over a simultaneous council discussion regarding noncitizen voting.
While a majority “Yes” or “No” from voters wouldn’t affect the status of the current rent control law, a future council majority could repeal it.
Voting against the ballot measure idea were the council’s rent control opponents – Councilmembers Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza, and Mayor Valerie Amezcua.
The long-brewing tension between elected officials pushing both the tenant protection and noncitizen voting policies – and those who weren’t – evoked one of the most public displays yet, that night, of a governing body split on the notion of what “saving your community” looks like in the working-class Latino city.
It prompted Bacerra, Penaloza and Amezcua to lambaste their colleagues, claiming their opponents only want to help poor people in town to look good for elections.
The three argued they were more mature, experienced and educated on the consequences of social welfare policies.
It was the nexus of a larger debate between both factions over what’s casting a bigger shadow over Santa Ana:
Council members backed by property owner interests and the police union, or the opposing colleagues they called political grandstanders?
“There’s four people up here that are just jumping in the water cause it feels good, looks good – ra, ra, ra – pat yourself up on the back because ‘I’m saving my community,’” Amezcua said. “That is not what we should be doing up here. Creating jobs, bringing in businesses, generating revenue, looking at what the city is looking like in 2-5-10 years – That’s what we should be doing.”
“That’s mature, responsible leadership. That’s not what we’re doing up here.”
It comes in a city reeling from the abrupt resignation of City Manager Kristine Ridge and the looming retirement of police Chief David Valentin. Ridge notably stood against the police union president’s quest for a pension spike that was deemed improper, leading to a high profile legal battle between the city and police union.
That same police union has been a principal backer of Mayor Amezcua and council members Bacerra and Penaloza.
During the meeting, rent control proponents like Councilmember Ben Vazquez said the ballot proposition was about safeguarding residents who struggle with rent from wealthy interest groups.
“This is the reason we are doing this today,” said Vazquez. “It’s to protect the work that’s been done, to protect the word of the voters and to make sure we’re not taken away by these special interests who are coming into Santa Ana and are wanting to control our city.”
He closed by saying that “perception is reality.”
Those words drew a sharp response from Bacerra, who disputed that special interests influenced his vote.
“Well I hate to break your heart, Ben – but the reality is some of us up here actually understand the issues. And that’s why we feel the way we do,” said Bacerra. “It’s not because someone contributed to our campaign. We can dissect all our (campaign finance disclosures) up here and start making accusations about whose interests are what. Some of us understand the issues and we feel passionately because we want our residents to have homes where the landlords can actually afford to make the repairs.”
He charged pro-rent control council members with passing policies that have reduced the amount of housing in Santa Ana.
“You guys are all talking about (political campaign) contributions, but you guys are the ones politically grandstanding for the next election,” he added.
Council Member Johnathan Ryan Hernandez said the ballot measures he supported were about “putting special interests on the back burner and listening to the very people who elected you,” and likened other council members’ opposition to rent control and noncitizen voting to “discomfort” about change.
It was a meeting of multiple back-and-forth challenges that went beyond the issues at hand, and into individual voting records — from gas station approvals to climate action plans.
The focus also turned to Bacerra, Penaloza and Amezcua’s affiliations with the police union.
In flustered remarks that often trailed into different topics, Amezcua publicly called out Voice of OC news coverage of her, Bacerra and Penaloza’s police union campaign finance support. Bacerra and Penaloza also called out Voice of OC coverage throughout the night
Earlier this Summer, City Hall officially parted ways with the police union’s controversial leader of seven years, Gerry Serrano.
Under Serrano, the union became the city’s most powerful interest group, spending heavily on citywide elections and multiple recalls of council members who criticized them, and hurling lawsuits at City Hall executives who said Serrano had threatened to “burn the city to the ground” unless he got a pension spike they deemed improper.
Those City Hall executives were Ridge and Valentin, who decried Serrano’s “intimidation campaign” and announced their own departures between September and October, with Valentin citing “corrupt and compromised politicians.”
Amezcua took issue with past Voice of OC quotes taken from her statements on the dais.
“When the Voice of OC writes an article they only take three words of what I said,” Amezcua said from the dais on Tuesday.
“And everybody brings up Gerry Serrano — Gerry retired. He’s probably traveling the world. I have no idea. And I’m sure they’ll say that I said he’s traveling the world because I know. No, I do not. I’ll be really clear: No, I do not. I do not know what he’s doing. But I know he’s retired. So we can talk about Gerry’s going to burn down the city — that’s over with. He’s gone. It’s gone. Stop. Please. Let’s talk about where we’re going forward.”
Amezcua didn’t defend Serrano in her statements from the dais.
She publicly warned her council colleagues against questioning her and other colleagues’ ethics, at one point invoking Council Member Vasquez’s salary as a public school teacher and the price of his car, and also questioning whether her council rivals were properly reporting their campaign finances in their disclosure forms.
“When you lay with dogs you get fleas,” Amezcua said, later adding:
“I don’t hide anything. I don’t hide who gives me money at all. POA money? I am so proud to be endorsed by fire and law enforcement throughout this county, because people have had to call 911 all day long and get help.”