Published: Jan. 8, 2013 Updated: 3:42 p.m.
Rumors that Paul M. Walter could be fired brought a crowd to City Hall on Monday, even though neither he nor the position were on the agenda.
SANTA ANA – An issue not on the Santa Ana City Council agenda dominated the first meeting of 2013 – the future of City Manager Paul M. Walters.
Spurred by phone calls, news stories and blog posts, some two dozen residents, as well as business and labor leaders, spoke to the council Monday to voice their support for Walters, the city’s former police chief who was appointed to the post of city manager seven months ago. At one point, about 75 to 100 stood up in the council chamber in a show of support.
The issue arose in a special meeting – a closed-session performance evaluation – called two days after Christmas by a majority of the council that included David Benavides, Vincent F. Sarmiento, Sal Tinajero and Michele Martinez.
Council members call it an opportunity to communicate their vision of the city with staff and to clear the air. Some see it as a way to shake up the culture at City Hall, where a longtime mayor, Miguel Pulido, has established equally long working relationships with Walters and other staff.
Some members of the community, though, are concerned that the council is looking for a way to replace Walters, who gained popularity as police chief and respect for having helped guide the city last year through a fiscal crisis. They took their concerns to the special meeting in December, and redoubled their efforts again on Monday.
Raul Luna, who served as a Santa Ana police sergeant and as a district director to Rep. Loretta Sanchez, spoke Monday.
“The last I heard Paul Walters was being recognized for his leadership and keeping the city afloat and now this,” he said. “If what I hear is true, I urge each and every one of you to reevaluate your options, not based on a short-term vision, but by considering the well-being of our neighborhoods and business community in adopting a long-term vision with Paul Walters as city manager.”
Cherie Kerr, who owns a public relations business in Santa Ana, made a second appearance before the council to support Walters.
“He has devoted himself to the city for 40 years,” she said. “With Paul, it’s never been about power or ego, but service.”
The council, on a 5-0 vote in June, hired Walters as its permanent city manager. He had served as interim city manager since May 2011.
Like Martinez and others, Tinajero said he respects the work that Walters has done on the city’s behalf.
“As a city manager and as a police chief, he’s been very responsive,” Tinajero said.
He said it’s premature to say that the council is seeking to replace Walters, who under the terms of his contract was due for an evaluation in May 2013.
“Before you can do anything, everyone has to feel they are part of the organization. Once people have that perception, you can move forward,” he said. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s restructure how we do things in city. Let’s give everyone a voice at the table.’ … If our administrators thrive and do well, we’ll keep them. If they don’t do well, we’ll have to make assessments and adjustments.”
A recent concern, he said, was a special meeting called in December with 24-hour notice to deal with a $56 million demand from the state in the wake of a state law that dissolved redevelopment agencies.
“We don’t want to be told at the 12th hour that we got something from the state,” Tinajero said. “We want to be given that information ahead of time, so that we as a council can be forward looking.”
Absent from Monday’s meeting were council members Benavides and Angelica Amezcua.
Replacing Walters won’t come cheaply, if the council decides to fire him. The city charter calls for five votes on the council supporting a resolution to dismiss the city manager.
His contract allows for him to return to the position of police chief if he is fired as city manager. If he chooses not to return, he gets severance pay of one-year base salary – $265,000 – or three years and eight months of military service added to his retirement benefits. He gets to decide which.
Either way, he gets an estimated $100,000 in unused leave. If he is fired for cause – for facing criminal charges or not following the council’s directives – he gets nothing.
Staff writer Tony Saavedra contributed to this report.
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