The recall election of Santa Ana Councilmember Jessie Lopez is moving forward despite 11th hour concerns raised by the OC Registrar of Voters, who found the wrong map was used in the recall process.
The Santa Ana police union is the principal financial backer of the recall campaign, spending hundreds of thousands on campaigning, but efforts to unseat Lopez are also supported by landlord and realtors associations opposed to her pro-rent control stance.
Police union-backed council members Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza and Mayor Valerie Amezcua on Monday refused to call off the special recall election, despite dozens of public speakers who called the recall undemocratic and illegal.
The result was a deadlocked vote at that night’s special meeting, convened in response to the validity issues raised last Thursday by the county’s top elections official.
That means the $600,000 special election will proceed as scheduled for Nov. 14, just a year before the seat goes up for grabs again during the presidential election.
It leaves open the question of whether Santa Ana’s police union will, for a second time, unseat a council member for challenging police officer raises and the union’s political grip since the turn of the decade.
In 2020, the police union successfully recalled a Republican council member, Ceci Iglesias, who voiced similar concerns over the organization’s influence on the city budget.
Absent from the discussion was Lopez, who watched from the audience and told Voice of OC she was advised by the city attorney to stay out of the vote, which she reacted to in a speech outside the chambers once the meeting was over.
“It is an illegal election that they (police union-backed colleagues) are now supporting and putting their name behind, just because of the stronghold that I do believe special interests have on these city council members,” Lopez said.
On the steps of City Hall, she called on people gathered around her to “continue to highlight the injustices that go on in this city, day in and day out.”
Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, a fellow police union critic, called the decision by his police union-backed colleagues a vote “in favor of a city hall where corrupt politicians of your city run dictatorships.”
Councilmembers Thai Viet Phan and Ben Vazquez also expressed frustration with their colleagues’ votes, while the police union-backed council members kept their comments brief.
“My position is, the City of Santa Ana should not take responsibility for the Registrar of Voters’ errors,” said Bacerra before voting against calling the special election off.
Outside of chairing the meeting, Mayor Valerie Amezcua said nothing at all – except for a warning to Hernandez, when he announced publicly that City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, during the earlier section of the meeting that took place behind closed doors, advised the council to rescind the recall’s certification.
“There’s a lot that goes on in closed session and I don’t think everyone wants it to be public,” Amezcua said.
The air became more tense once the vote was tallied, with some people laughing over Penaloza – calling him a “sellout” from the audience – as he advertised a community Halloween event toward the closing of the meeting.
An 11th Hour Wrench
It comes after Orange County Registrar of Voters Bob Page – in a Thursday letter to city officials – said that recall petitioners and his office used the wrong map when proponents gathered signatures and county officials reviewed and certified them.
Page said the recall petition should have been circulated to registered voters within the boundaries of Lopez’s electoral ward that existed in 2020, the year she was elected and before its boundaries were redrawn.
But signatures were gathered and certified based on the post-redistricting boundaries, Page said.
The issue wasn’t detected until last week, when Page said he received an email from the Kings County Registrar of Voters “asking other county elections officials in the state for advice regarding a recall effort involving school district officials elected before and after redistricting.”
“This request prompted me to re-examine how we reviewed the Ward 3 recall petition and are administering the recall election pursuant to the request of the City of Santa Ana,” Page said in an email.
Thus – just weeks away from the election – Page’s office said that nearly 1,200 residents should have received a mail ballot for this election but did not.
Residents Speak Out
More than 40 people showed up on Monday night to speak on the recall, with 10 people calling on council members to push on despite Page’s letter, and 34 people urging council members to cancel it entirely.
Some people who spoke in favor of the recall insisted that moving forward would be democratic, while others said they differed with Lopez on ideas they supported and are one vote away from achieving – like arresting people for watching a street race or for being publicly intoxicated.
It’s “evident” that residents of Lopez’s ward “have not been represented and I’m not the only one that feels that way,” said Yelena Ball, a Santa Ana resident who with other neighbors started a group to reclaim Santiago Park from homeless people, according to Orange Coast Magazine.
“I think we can all agree that Santa Ana should be safe,” said Ball, adding hasn’t seen an adequate response from Lopez on what she feels are Santa Ana’s most pressing issues – “drugs and crime.”
To speakers who opposed the election proceeding, the real issues in town were towering rents and the police union’s heavily financed stronghold over citywide elections.
Some recall critics identified themselves in Spanish as living in the old ward boundaries that were left out of the recall petition and mail ballots.
They called the effort to unseat Lopez a power-grab by the union and landlords – hoping to replace Lopez’s staunch rent control support – that would waste $600,000 in taxpayer dollars for a special election on a seat that only has a year left on its term, going up for grabs again in the following presidential election year.
The police union-backed mayor, Valerie Amezcua, has endorsed Lopez’s recall in campaign materials sent out to residents.
Amezcua and her police union-backed colleagues have, at multiple meetings, come to bitter and personal blows with those on the council aligned with Lopez over issues like rent control and public safety, evoking some of the most public displays yet, in Santa Ana, of a governing body split on the notion of what “saving your community” looks like in the working-class Latino city.
“We hear again and again that there’s no money for vital programs and resources, yet the city council is supporting spending more than half a million on a recall a year before the election?” asked Sandra “Pocha” Peña Sarmiento, an Eastside / Pacific Park neighborhood leader during public comment. “That doesn’t make sense.”
The Santa Ana police union principally financed the recall efforts after Lopez voted against police raises and in support of the city’s historic, 2021 rent control law – focusing hundreds of thousands in political spending toward unseating her, with sizable support from landlord and property owner groups.
What Led to the Recall?
The recall effort began under the helm of the police union’s controversial – and since July, former – president, Gerry Serrano.
It came after Lopez’s vote last December against salary increases the union had proposed.
The union also targeted Councilmember Thai Viet Phan, who also voted against the union’s preferred salary increase. But recall organizers missed the August deadline to submit signatures.
Under Serrano, who took over the union in 2016, the organization has become the city’s most aggressive spender in citywide elections.
In 2020, the union successfully unseated Iglesias, who voted against $25 million in police officer raises that were approved by her union-backed council majority colleagues in 2019.
Iglesias called the raises fiscally irresponsible in a town whose voters had just agreed – the prior year – to become OC’s highest taxed city to combat a structural budget deficit.
And when that year’s citywide elections put police union-backed council members in the minority, tensions heightened between Serrano and City Hall, whose executives accused Serrano of running an intimidation campaign – a litigious quest to “burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants” – to score a pension spike.
It all caught the eye of the Orange County Register’s editorial board, not traditionally an ally of progressive elected officials, which issued a scathing rebuke of the recall election, urging people to vote against recalling the progressive Lopez.
“If the POA gets away with another recall, no councilmember would dare resist it in the future. It would become the dictatorship of Santa Ana.” reads the Oct. 26 editorial. “This union must be tamed. It must be brought under the control of the voters.”