This article has been updated.

As a recall election heavily financed by the local police union heats up, Santa Ana city council members financially backed by the same union are bristling at media reports noting the nexus. 

Over the last month, there’s been a lot of controversy at City Hall over the influence of the police union – particularly with the sudden retirement of Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin and abrupt resignation of City Manager Kristine Ridge, who opposed the city’s former union president, Gerry Serrano, in his effort expand his retirement income.

It was an effort that Ridge, in a memo to council members, described as Serrano’s bid to “burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants.”

Ridge abruptly resigned last month, reportedly filing a claim against the city that city officials won’t release to Voice of OC and a host of other media asking about it. 

[Read: ‘Emotional Distress’: Santa Ana Pays $625k to City Manager Who Abruptly Resigned]

All this uncertainty has been visible from the governing dais, as public debates between a police union-backed minority and majority that wants to move the city in a more progressive direction get uglier and more personal.

City Manager Kristine Ridge during the Santa Ana City Council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2022.
Gerry Serrano, the president of the Santa Ana police union on Nov. 5, 2019. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Last week, the lid blew off when OC Registrar of Voters Bob Page publicly raised questions about whether the recall could go forward or not, saying the wrong map was used when recall petitioners gathered signatures.

Because the council member – Jessie Lopez –  subject to the recall recused herself, the governing body was left deadlocked, with three city council members urging the election’s cancellation and the other three refusing to take any action.

The recall election is widely seen as belonging to the police union, which has spent $660,000 to unseat Lopez.

Earlier this month, police union-backed council members chafed at being connected to the same financial backers.

Santa Ana police responding a police call on Bishop St. on Dec. 7, 2020. Credit: FRANK VERA

They publicly protested Voice of OC reporting that mentioned their campaigns’ hefty police union political support.

“Every time the Voice of OC wants to take certain council members up here … ‘They were supported by the POA’ – so what? So what? I mean, talk about trying to create a narrative that’s not there, but that’s fine,” said Councilmember Phil Bacerra at one Oct. 17 meeting.

The city’s police union-backed mayor, Valerie Amezcua, gave a similar rebuke that same night.

“When the Voice of OC says, every single time they write, Mayor Amezcua, Councilmember Bacerra, Councilmember Penaloza – funded by POA,” Amezcua said. “I was out there, walking every day, knocking on doors.”

Yet records reviewed by Voice of OC show that police union officials consistently spent more money on behalf of Amezcua, Bacerra and Penaloza than the candidates spent on their own.

In Mayor Amezcua’s case, by more than double the amount.

What the Disclosures Say

460s are used to show campaign donations, making sure that donors and those running for office are following the law. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Santa Ana Police Officer Association’s political action committee heavily supported the 2022 campaigns of council members Bacerra, Penaloza and Mayor Amezcua through independent expenditures on things like digital advertising and political mailers, according to a Voice of OC review of campaign finance disclosures.

On her own, Amezcua fundraised and spent $80,500 for the entire year of 2022, according to disclosures by a campaign committee she controlled.

The police union, by comparison, spent a total of roughly $218,000 on mailers and digital ads in support of her. 

Over the course of 2021 and 2022, Penaloza fundraised more than $83,000 through his own committee and spent more than $82,000.

Meanwhile, the police union – over the course of one year – spent a total of $92,000 in support of him in 2022. 

Bacerra raised slightly more money than the police union spent in support of him in 2021 and 2022, tallying a total of more than $83,000 raised through his own committee and spending nearly $59,000.

The police union – in 2022 – spent a total of $82,000 in support of him.

Requests for comment from Amezcua and Bacerra for this story went unreturned.

Pastor Anh Tuan Nguyen delivers words of inspiration to councilmembers and attendees at the monthly City Council meeting in Santa Ana, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2022.

Penaloza, asked whether the police union influenced his decision not take action the recall’s validity question, said in a text message:

“As far as the recall goes, The sensitivity and current mistrust surrounding our elections and election integrity is too great to allow politicians who have campaigned in support or against the recall to be able to cancel it,” Penaloza wrote.

He continued: 

“Especially after thousands of Santa Ana residents have already received their ballots and voted. The potential conflict of interest claims that can arise from that cannot be ignored. This is something a judge needs to get to the bottom of and decide.”

The police union has spent more than $660,000 this year – as of Nov. 1 – on its campaign to unseat Lopez, according to newly released campaign finance disclosures, after Lopez voted against union pay raise demands last December. 

All that spending is pitted against the $123,000 in spending to defend Lopez against the recall, according to campaign records released so far as part of customary election spending disclosures. 

How Beholden Are They?

At the Oct. 17 meeting, Bacerra’s public challenge to the police union “narrative” was in response, that night, to characterizations from activists calling the recall campaign “corrupt.”

“When we talk about corrupt recalls – unless the clerk can tell me otherwise – I believe that the processes were followed to the law, so to say that it’s a corrupt recall says basically that our police officers are corrupt and vilifies them and I absolutely disagree with that.”

That was a week before council members like Bacerra refused to cancel the recall despite county elections officials raising serious questions about how signatures were gathered. 

The county has since rescinded the original, July 17 certificate finding enough valid signatures to prompt an election.

However, Page said his office will proceed with administering the recall election, saying his office is acting at the city’s direction.

The election is estimated to cost more than $600,000 out of the city’s public purse, which also will likely have to pay for legal challenges that may arise given the issues on signatures.

In light of the county’s recall questions, Bacerra and Penaloza have insisted, on social media, that it’s not their place to cancel the election. Penaloza said he no longer endorsed the recall campaign.

On Tuesday, an Orange County Superior Court Judge on Tuesday morning refused to halt the recall election despite a request for a temporary restraining order in light of the recall’s validity questions.

Councilmember Jessie Lopez addresses supporters ahead of the Oct. 30, 2023 special council meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A formal hearing is scheduled for Jan. 12, leaving the question of whether the wrong electorate is voting on Jessie Lopez’s fate this November to be settled in court after the election.

Efforts to defend Lopez from the recall have also seen spending support from independent PACs.

The committee fighting Lopez’s recall has spent more than $123,000 this year as of Nov. 1, with $10,000 in independent spending support from a PAC run by the Latino organizing group Mijente, and $20,000 in spending from a PAC set up by the United Food and Commercial Workers.


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