Santa Ana’s police union-backed City Council members won’t unstrap themselves from an imminent, police union-driven recall election that the county has officially decertified.
Not only did County of Orange elections officials find – at the 11th hour – that they and recall petitioners used the wrong electoral map to gather and verify signatures and mail ballots to residents, but the county has since rescinded its certificate of the recall’s signatures entirely.
Yet the seat of City Councilmember Jessie Lopez – a vocal police union critic – seems headed for a Nov. 14 special election anyway, one costing more than $600,000 out of the city’s public purse.
It’s putting City Hall at odds with the OC Registrar of Voters, with both looking to the other for guidance on the issue.
The police union has already spent nearly half a million dollars in their campaign to unseat Lopez, which, if successful, would be the second time they’ve ousted an elected official who challenged officer salaries and the union’s political grip, since the turn of the decade.
Now it may be up to a judge to decide whether an election should proceed without the say of nearly 1,200 residents who should have received a mail ballot for this election but did not.
“That’s why we’re taking this corrupt recall to court,” announced Lopez in a campaign email asking for donations from supporters on Tuesday.
If Lopez is unseated, her replacement would only hold office for a year before the seat again goes up for grabs in the November 2024 presidential election.
The situation comes after three police union-backed City Council members – Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza and Mayor Valerie Amezcua – refused to cancel the election at a Monday night special meeting, despite OC Registrar of Voters Bob Page’s office raising serious validity issues in an Oct. 26 letter to City Hall.
Page’s letter states that police union recall petitioners gathered voters’ signatures for an election based on the current map of Lopez’s ward, instead of the prior boundaries that existed when she was elected, before the ward was redistricted.
On top of that, in closed door discussions before council members took their vote on Monday night, City Hall’s top attorney, Sonia Carvalho, advised council members to rescind the city’s own certification of the recall, according to remarks from the dais by Council Member Johnathan Ryan Hernandez.
Instead, council members on Monday deadlocked.
“The Registrar of Voters will continue to conduct the recall election using the current map of Ward 3 until we receive new direction from the City to use the 2020 map of Ward 3. The City Clerk is the elections official for the election. The Registrar of Voters provides election services at the direction of the City and the City Clerk,” Page wrote in a Tuesday email.
In an Oct. 27 letter responding to Page’s original notice, city officials asked for more guidance from county officials.
“The City should not be left alone in deciding how to proceed, based on the error, regardless of who is responsible for it,” Carvahlo wrote.
The county’s top attorney, Leon Page, responded that the county is relying on direction from the city.
Recall organizers and police union-backed council members have criticized Page’s office for recognizing the error so late in the game.
Page said he noticed the issue after receiving 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.
In light of the 11th hour controversy, Page added that his office has “started to review our procedures and checklists to identify opportunities to improve how we support city clerks.”
On Monday, Page signed a “superseding” certificate rescinding the one he issued on July 17 – first reported by freelance journalist Ben Camacho – which originally determined enough valid signatures from voters in Lopez’s ward to move forward with the election.
The following day, in a Facebook post, Councilmember Penaloza said he no longer endorsed the recall campaign.
In his post, Penaloza echoed police union-backed colleagues’ remarks on Monday, that council members shouldn’t be the ones to cancel the election.
“The integrity of our elections is way too important and sacred for politicians to be the ones who decide whether an election currently taking place gets canceled or not, especially after many Santa Ana residents have already cast their votes. That is not a decision that I should be the one to have to make.”
Yet Page has said his elections office depends on the City Council’s direction on how to proceed.
Requests for comment from council members Phil Bacerra and Valerie Amezcua went unreturned on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, OC Supervisor and former Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmieneto publicly questioned the integrity of the police union recall.
“The Santa Ana City Council had the opportunity to do the right thing,” said Sarmiento during supervisors’ regular meeting. “The rules are that when a person is going to be recalled, they should be recalled by those same voters that voted you in.”
Sarmiento said it creates “mistrust in election integrity.”
“There are rules that need to be followed and those weren’t.”
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