Santa Ana Hires City Manager, Calls for Special Election to Fill Council Vacancy

All along the water tower. Flickr user Alejandro C, CC-BY-NC 2.0

Santa Ana did its best to address two key city leadership positions during a three-and-a-half hour special meeting on Friday afternoon that showed the shambled state of the city more than anything else. Council members started off by approving a contract to bring Kristine Ridge on board as permanent city manager at $290,000 a year in base pay. In another vote, a divided council failed to appoint a candidate to represent Ward 4 following the resignation of ex-councilman Roman Reyna; Instead, they unanimously called for a special election in November.

Both items appeared on the agenda for Tuesday’s city council meeting, but mayor Miguel Pulido continued them until yesterday afternoon.

With a 4-2 vote, Ridge will start as Santa Ana’s city manager, its sixth in the past two years, effective May 1. She previously worked as Anaheim’s assistant city manager until leaving to become Laguna Niguel’s city manager in late 2017. That same year, she became a finalist for the job in Santa Ana, only to have council members hire Raul Godinez, instead. Ridge, a Pulido favorite, is also closely tied with former Anaheim mayor-turned lobbyist Curt Pringle. Sources inform the Weekly that the office of Pringle’s lobbying firm, Pringle and Associates, played host to Ridge’s “going away” party when she left Anaheim for Laguna Niguel.

Few debated Ridge’s qualifications, but her proposed three-year “evergreen” contract became the subject of much discussion. With a council majority having booted Godinez in January, his $400,000 payout and other cash-outs from two key departures from the city manager’s office factored into cost considerations for hiring Ridge earlier in the week. With total compensation at $385,000, a staff report noted that $64,000 would be sought through a mid-year budget request rather than an appropriation adjustment.

Councilman Vicente Sarmiento started first by questioning the evergreen provision of Ridge’s contract. “It’s kind of a shotgun marriage,” he said. “On principal, I have a tough time with evergreens.”

City attorney Sonia Carvalho explained that the evergreen clauses are more common where long-term certainty is sought. “We’re not trying to protect a severance payment, because we don’t have one,” she explained when councilwoman Cecilia Iglesias brought it up again. “As I understand, the candidate…wanted the stability of knowing that if the city council gives her notice that they want to terminate, that she’s not automatically sent on her way. She has two options: She can either negotiate a mutually acceptable departure…or she can say, ‘Thank you for giving me notice, I’m going to stay my remaining two years.'” Carvalho opined that the mutual agreement scenario would be the more likely of the two.

Sarmiento expressed concerns about the possibility of an 18-month payoff topping at $600,000. Councilman Jose Solorio also became a stickler in asking if city staff’s money figures accurately reflected the total cost of the contract. “Are there other monetary benefits that will be realized as part of an annual compensation package,” he asked. “I’m getting the sense that some things are missing.” Solorio later inquired about retirement benefits and paid absence sums.

Councilman Juan Villegas, in turn, blasted Sarmiento and Solorio for haggling the city manager contract when they voted to give Santa Ana police $25 million in raises over three years without having yet appropriated the needed $4.3 million in funds to meet its first-year obligations. “Find the money for this, that’s all I’m saying, brother!” Solorio interjected.

“That’s why it’s so hard to get somebody here [that’s] qualified because of…this,” Villegas said in defense of the contract at another point. “We need some stability. We’re bleeding on the eighth floor.”

After a short recess, Ridge’s contract finally came to a vote, with only Sarmiento and Solorio dissenting. Solorio protested that the hiring required a five-member appropriation adjustment vote to address the short fall. “That’s not on the agenda,” Pulido said, in moving things along.

Ward 4’s vacancy didn’t get Phil’d

The special meeting then turned to the matter of filling the Ward 4 vacancy on council, a matter of political importance on an even council without a clear majority. Six council hopefuls applied. The pool included Maricela Vallejo, Ken Nguyen, Jennifer Oliva, Bishop Gale Oliver, Jr., Phillip Ortiz Jr., and Phil Bacerra.

Of the half-dozen, only Bacerra ran for council in November and lost to Reyna. After the election, he filed a civil suit alleging that Reyna falsified his address in order to run in Ward 4, litigation that ended with a settlement where the councilman agreed to resign on Mar. 1 rather than go to trial. But Reyna’s troubles remain; the Voice of OC reports that the Orange County District Attorney is continuing a criminal investigation into the voter fraud claims.

During the election, Griselda Govea, an ex-girlfriend of Bacerra’s, accused the candidate of domestic violence during their past relationship.  Bacerra denied all allegations of abuse but the Democratic Party of Orange County’s central committee voted in favor of suspending his endorsement after launching an investigation. In contrast, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association (POA) stayed firm with their endorsement, but Solorio, backed by the POA, publicly spoke out against Bacerra on social media after the allegations surfaced.

Most of the folks who gave up their Friday night did so to speak in favor of Bacerra’s appointment. Afterward, five of the six council hopefuls spoke at the meeting and answered questions from the dais in a sloppy open forum. “During my last campaign, I was very blessed to have some very big supporters,” Bacerra said. “But that doesn’t, in any way, shape or form, put me in a position where I’m beholden to anybody other than the residents.”

Sarmiento got off-script and asked candidates about single-member districts, Santa Ana being a sanctuary city, and the great gentrification debate. Bacerra gave polished wishy wash on the first two while praising the “evolution” of downtown. Planning commissioner Ken Nguyen firmly supported Santa Ana’s sanctuary city status, signaled support for single-member districts, especially since implementation in 2020 means he would have to run again in a newly formed District 1, but had no opinion on gentrification. Oliva sought a balance between economic growth and displacement when addressing the council.

Villegas asked the only question that ultimately mattered. “If we go to special election, are you willing to run?” he asked. “I support a special election.” All present affirmed that they would. When time came to vote, the glaring lack of an organized process reared its ugly head again. Some noted two favored candidates while others only backed one. At the end of the first (and final) round, Oliva gained three nods. Nguyen and Bacerra enjoyed two each.

Without an appointee emerging, council voted unanimously to hold a special election in November, one that will alleviate the cost of another ordered to fill a vacancy on the Santa Ana Unified School District board of trustees after weeks of deadlocked votes there failed to appoint a replacement for a vacancy left by current councilwoman Cecilia Iglesias.

At the end of the special meeting, Pulido deemed the night “democracy in action.” More like desmadre…and not the good kind!

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