City records allege Mayor Amezcua ousted two top officials as a favor for cops and violated state open meeting law

This article has been re-published from KnockLA with permission.

In what appears to be a political favor to the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, Santa Ana Mayor Valerie Amezcua played a pivotal role in the removal of then-City Manager Kristine Ridge and then-Chief David Valentin, as revealed by public records acquired by Knock LA.

The role of the police labor union and Mayor Amezcua in the ouster of Ridge and Valentin was revealed in a legal claim submitted to the city by Ridge. In that claim, Ridge alleged that she experienced “discrimination, harassment, retaliation and [pressure] to take illegal action.” 

Meanwhile, Councilmember Johnathan Hernandez submitted an ethics complaint on August 1, 2023, to the city attorney alleging that Amezcua violated the state’s Brown Act in carrying out the strategy to “fire the City Manager and [Police] Chief [David] Valentin.” This complaint is still pending.

Ridge’s claim, dated September 22, 2023, threatened legal action against the city and sparked settlement discussions. This ultimately resulted in her resignation and the city council’s vote to pay her a settlement of over $600,000 to settle her legal claim. Attempts by the city to conceal the reasons behind the substantial payout to Ridge were highlighted when it repeatedly declined to release her claim in response to numerous public records requests made by Knock LA over nearly six months.

Ultimately, the city council discussed Knock LA’s Public Records Act request for the disclosure of Ridge’s legal claim in a closed session at the city council on March 5, after Knock LA emailed relevant case law to the city attorney, showing the document was indeed a public record. The city released the record on March 11.

Via email, city spokesperson Paul Eakins stated that the “matter was placed on the closed session agenda due to significant exposure to litigation…” and that “…questions arose about the confidentiality of the document. Staff needed time to evaluate the issues and obtain legal advice before releasing the document.”

Hernandez’s ethics complaint, shared with Knock LA, alleged that Amezcua “was adamant about firing the Chief and demonstrated knowledge and an understanding that in order to fire the Chief she has to fire the City Manager (CM), Kristine Ridge.” 

Hernandez alleged Amezcua stated that the “[SAPOA] is not lobbying her or forcing her to attempt [the strategy]…”

This strategy is what the SAPOA allegedly asked for in 2016 when then-Chief Carlos Rojas was ousted by former SAPOA-funded elected officials. In a 2016 lawsuit, Rojas alleged that city officials backed by the SAPOA conspired to oust him as police chief by first firing then-city manager David Cavazos. The strategy was allegedly orchestrated by the SAPOA, former Mayor Miguel Pulido, and former councilmembers Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas. 

Rojas’ lawsuit states “Serrano and the POA spent approximately $300,000.00-$400,000.00 in the 2016 elections to support candidates who agreed in advance that, if elected, they would vote to remove [Cavazos, Rojas and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho]”. 

The strategy ushered in by Amezcua is a repeat of history by one of the city’s largest political players. 

While the press release attached to the severance and release agreement between the city and Ridge includes amicable language from Amezcua and Ridge, the claim, which initiated the settlement talks, tells a different story. 

Ridge alleged that she “endured repeated pressure from specific elected officials contrary to State law to take care of Police Union President, Gerry Serrano’s, pension” and had “been repeatedly directed to provide Mr. Serrano with a higher paying salaried position without regard to civil service provisions nor qualifications.”

According to Ridge’s claim, Amezcua threatened Ridge’s job after Ridge told the mayor that placing a certain item on the city council agenda would violate the Brown Act – the state’s opening meeting law.  Because the City redacted the agenda item from Ridge’s claim letter when it released the letter to Knock LA, it is unclear how the placement of the item on the agenda would have violated the Brown Act. Ridge’s claim letter also alleges that during the city’s contract negotiations with the police union, Amezcua “prohibited Ms. Ridge from speaking or answering questions…” related to those negotiations. 

The mayor’s alleged gag order directed at Ridge denied the city’s top officer the ability to provide input on contract negotiations between the city and the police union, the latter of which is Amezcua’s largest donor.

Amezcua received almost $218,000 from the SAPOA in support of her 2022 mayoral campaign. She endorsed the SAPOA’s failed recall attempt of council member Jessie Lopez. She has also publicly announced that she is “proud” to have the support of the SAPOA. 

A flyer advocating for the recall of Councilmember Jessie Lopez, endorsed by Mayor Amezcua: "Santa Ana is wrestling with the dangers of street racing, parks and public spaces that belong to our families being taken over by public intoxication, and a homeless problem that is out of control. City Hall needs leaders that can address these problems with REAL solutions.m Please vote YES on the recall."
A flyer advocating for the recall of Councilmember Jessie Lopez, endorsed by Mayor Amezcua. (Photo: Ben Camacho | Knock LA)

According to Hernandez’s complaint, he met with Amezcua on December 15, 2022, two days after she was sworn in as mayor. The complaint states that she had “knowledge of ‘Evergreen’ and shared her concerns about it” at that first meeting.

“Evergreen” is a reference to a clause in the former city manager’s contract that perpetually renewed the contract, absent a written notice. More recently, Ernesto Conde, a former SAPOA consultant, stated in a lawsuit declaration that he and then-SAPOA President Gerry Serrano modeled an “evergreen” clause contained in a contract between the SAPOA and Conde’s public relations company after Ridge’s evergreen clause. 

In a phone interview with Knock LA, Hernandez said that “the evergreen ensures that [the city has] a city manager or an executive manager…[T]hey wouldn’t be able to just leave on a whim. The evergreen would either extend a contract for an additional year or two years or in some cases, up to five.”

Ridge’s claim states these issues were “not remotely an exhaustive list of the misconduct…” and includes redacted information as well as allegations of discriminatory remarks made by Amezcua towards Ridge.

Both the claim and the ethics complaint came at a time when the power dynamic on the city council was being contested by the SAPOA’s recall effort of Councilmember Lopez. Lopez was targeted by the SAPOA for voting against the police association’s labor proposals in late 2022. 

Ridge and her attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The city’s half-year concealment of Ridge’s claim is consistent with recent government actions to push for more secrecy. State legislators Josh Lowenthal and Blanca Pacheco introduced bills that target the California Public Records Act (CPRA). This comes after Los Angeles City Attorney Hydee Feldstein-Soto submitted a proposal to other legislators last year that also targeted the CPRA

Ridge’s claim and Hernandez’s complaint are windows into the SAPOA’s efforts to exert power over the city’s top elected official — the mayor. 

Regarding the status of Ridge’s claim and Hernandez’s ethics complaint, Eakins stated that “…the Council had formed ad hoc committees to address both of these matters. We have no additional information to share at this time.”

Amezcua did not respond to repeated requests for comment.