Santa Ana Council Ambush: What Just Happened? Is Martinez Now Running the Joint? Some Hypotheses

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After the sacking of Cavazos, is Michele Martinez now running the joint?  Some questions and speculation follows.

Something big just happened in Santa Ana, but it’s not clear exactly what, or why — or even how.  I expect to learn more from commenters than I’ll be able to provide, but at least I can set the stage for the discussion.

1.  What Was Today’s Result?

At today’s Mayor Miguel Pulido-initiated “special meeting” — of which Councilmembers reportedly learned on Monday night, but of which members of the general public at large did not learn until no earlier than when Nick Gerda’s Voice of OC story came out around 6:00 p.m. — the City Council voted 4-0 to place Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos on administrative leave.  (According to Gerda, this is the most that they can do with four votes; to terminate him, they would need five.)  Councilmembers David Benavides, Vince Sarmiento, and Sal Tinajero were absent from the meeting because they were traveling during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day — and presumably didn’t expect anything as sneaky and audacious as a snap meeting during that time.  (Or perhaps they knew it was coming and are just playing out a scene.  But my bet is that their surprise is genuine, because this move just seems so gratuitously rotten.)

2. Who’s Acting as City Manager Now?

Robert Cortez, who became the Deputy City Manager on September 7 after a Council vote the previous day, is the interim replacement.  Based on the OC Register story at that link, Cortez had been Cavazos’s special assistant since July 2014, and was offered the DCM position after a nationwide search.  Pulido and Michele Martinez, who all agree was the swing vote here, were the two sole votes against promoting him — so unless things have changed in the past few months, he is not a favorite of either of theirs.

3. Why the Sneakiness?

This is the really interesting question.  If Martinez was already disposed to get rid of Cavazos, why didn’t it happen last week?  Or, why didn’t it happen next week?  What was the hurry to squeeze it in between the holidays?  Here are some hypotheses:

A.  The “Scrooge” Hypothesis:  Martinez not going along with this action last week could have been as simple as her not wanting the stigma of doing it just before Christmas — the same reason that James Vanderbilt cited for extending the term of Anaheim City Manager Arturo Fierro through this Saturday.  But that doesn’t explain why they wouldn’t wait until next week.  He’ll still be on the payroll anyway making the same money, right?

B.  The “Save Me From Myself” Hypothesis:  It could be that Pulido and his Council allies Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas were not sure that they would retain Martinez’s vote if Benavides, Sarmiento, and Tinajero were around to talk her out of it.  So the plotters had to strike while opportunity arose.  This hypothesis puts Martinez in a really bad light — but, as explained in a moment, that itself could be part of the strategy!

C.  The “Make Her Get Her Hands Dirty” Hypothesis:  Here, the strategy of doing something completely beyond the norms of decent collegial behavior is a way of driving a wedge between Martinez and her three former (or is it still going to be “sometime”?) allies from “Santa Ana Spring.”  If the vote had gone this way last week, the three “Barons” would have been upset, but not shocked.  But to do it this way adds considerable insult to injury. Martinez appearing to have acquiesced (if not actually participated) in a conspiracy to sideline her colleagues makes it harder for them to reconcile with her — even if she had a good reason for wanting him gone.  (More on that in a moment.)  Committing a blatant atrocity is one way of demonstrating one’s power; inducing someone to join in that atrocity is a way of demonstrating one’s power over them.  If this was the intent, then it strengthens the argument that what her three recent comrades have to do is to forgive her and bring her right back into the fold.

D. The “We are Denizens of the Night” Hypothesis:  Maybe the whole basis for this timing was that media coverage was bound to be less during this holiday week than at any other time.  (If so, it may have been a poor calculation — reporters aren’t around, true, but there’s also less substantive news to compete with this week!)  If this is true, though, why didn’t Pulido really twist the knife and wait until the traditional “Friday afternoon news dump” time?  Perhaps that would have been too obvious?

E. The “She Just Needed Time to Decide” Hypothesis:  Sal Tinajero gave a powerful speech prior to last week’s trip into closed session on how this was payback to the police unions for their support of Pulido, Solorio, and their toddling follower Villegas (who didn’t even run a real campaign thanks to the third-part efforts!) — and maybe that, or other unsettled matters, gave Martinez pause.  She was exempt from Tinajero’s criticism, after all — she had what on the face of it was a good reason to want to get rid of Cavazos:  his (allegedly) meritless claims that Martinez engaged in sexual harassment after he claims that he rejected her advances.  Maybe she just needed time to ensure that she was on firm ground.

(Of course, how firm that ground is depends on the finding — based on a City investigation, and pardon me for my rolling my eyes a bit at that — that those claims were meritless.  The City had better hope that they were, because if there was merit to them then Cavazos is going to have a hell of a lawsuit, because then this would likely constitute retaliation for whistleblowing and his damages would be easily proven.  I don’t know when the alleged sexual harassment initially occurred; if it’s within a year, or if he has already filed a claim on it, then Martinez would be personally responsible in addition to the City.  Regardless, this — if it was an act of retaliation on her part — would open up a new statute of limitations.  I’m not going to opine on whether I think that it’s possible; all I’ll say is that Santa Ana government is reportedly an environment where one could easily get the notion that political power offers one the ability to gain sexual access that one might not otherwise enjoy.)

4. So What Happens Now?

One possibility is that Martinez has now officially switched sides and she now forms a majority with Pulido, Solorio, and their companion.  But that’s not the only possibility.

It’s also possible that, if this was truly a reaction to Cavazos making groundless accusations of sexual harassment, this was a “one-off.”  How (and when) will we be able to tell?

There are all sorts of things that Pulido and Solorio might want to see done.  Rolling back term limits on the Mayor?  (Well, Pulido might want that more than Solorio does.)  Replacing Cavazos with Paul Walters or someone like him?   Massive thank-you money to the police, to give them good talking points for future campaigns?  (That’s the biggest downside for them of having taken this tack: whether or not this ambush meeting truly was an atrocity, it certainly sounds like one.  And that will play prominently in campaign ads.)  Do they want to prevent any real  districting policy — like Anaheim’s — from going into place?  (Very likely so.)

I’ll defer to those more knowledgeable about Santa Ana politics, but it seems to me that the earliest sign of whether Martinez switches sides, goes back to the other Barons, or decides to stay carefully balanced as a swing vote in the middle will be what happens with David Cortez.  If her gripe against Cavazos truly was personal, then it would not necessarily be imputed to Cortez.  She certainly should remember why the City got rid of Walters in the first place — and ideally she would want no part in the reinstatement of that regime.

She could easily be “in charge” of City police if she wanted to — barring something highly unexpected, no new City Manager takes office without her vote — but that’s both a lonely and a vulnerable position.  The “court intrigue” masters Pulido and Solorio are like Murray and Brandman — they will never let her into the room where the real decisions get made, in part because they have good reason not to trust her and in part because they just don’t need to.  The Barons who once took power away from King Miguel — it was more of a “Magna Carta” moment than an “Arab Spring” — have good reason not to trust her either now, but they are much less tight-knit.  The police have shown that they can elect a non-entity like Villegas over an incumbent, which may give her pause — but at some point she has to decide that, especially with the NALEO Presidency in hand, she is not likely to starve to death if she loses her Council position.

Martinez can choose the corrupt insider path of a Pulido, Solorio, Claudia Alvarez, Kris Murray, Jordan Brandman, and many others.  But — and I mean this in the most positive way — like Loretta Sanchez, she really isn’t cut out from that cloth.  Or, she can be a leader like Loretta, Sharon Quirk-Silva, Connie Leyva, and some of the others whom I suspect she admires — less ensconced in the “boys’ club,” but able to offer something different and better to constituents.

I have little doubt that Martinez better fits into the latter category, which — despite our not being close — I was willing to put in a lot of time over the past less than a day to try to get her to make what I thought was the better decision.  But that — at least until and unless the Brown Act intervenes (and I’m not discussing that more this week) — is water under the bridge.  Martinez does “run the joint” at present, but only to a limited degree and not nearly as much as she might prefer.  Pulido and Solorio are celebrating today in the belief that they’re back in power; they’re probably making Martinez promises, in exchange for her vow of fealty, that they don’t know that they can actually deliver (and probably don’t much care.)  I hope that she is talking to her former allies as well, who will promise less but mean it more.

UPDATE, 12/30:  Well, THAT was fast!

Interim City Manager Cortez folded his tent almost immediately and appointed Parks Commissioner Gerardo Mouet in his place.  Jose Solorio seems thrilled; Sal Tinajero mouths nice words but seems apprehensive.  Is this what Michele Martinez wanted?  Regardless, that’s what she got.


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose worker's rights and government accountability attorney, residing in northwest Brea. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Occasionally runs for office to challenge some nasty incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed. (Someday he might pick a fight with the intent to win rather than just dent someone. You'll know it when you see it.) He got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012 and in 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. A family member co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)