Santa Ana staff complaints of councilmember’s “over-involvement” in cultural events leads to review

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

Staff allegations that Councilmember Johnathan Hernandez was being “overly involved” in the planning and execution of cultural events in Santa Ana, such as last year’s Juneteenth and the Chicano Heritage Festival, stepping on the toes of the parks and recreation department were sent by a council committee to an outside investigator.

A letter addressed to former City Manager Kristine Ridge lays out concerns raised by staff, accusing Hernandez of attending planning meetings without an invitation from staff, of confronting staff members about their “lack of cultural competency” and soliciting donations, among other things.

A redacted version of the letter was obtained by The Orange County Register through a public records request. The city originally declined the request due to an “ongoing personnel investigation,” but later released the records “in the spirit of transparency,” a city representative said in a follow-up message.

“Councilmember Hernandez ignores city policies and procedures related to special event permitting, talent acquisition and negotiations,” the letter to Ridge says, “preferring recommendations provided by the community-based organizations rather than professional staff.”

The letter called Hernandez’s “assertions that staff lack cultural sensitivity” offensive.

The city contracts with the law firm Hanson Bridgett LLP for when internal investigations are needed and late last year the matter was referred for review.

Hernandez said he welcomes the investigation because he is confident that he will be cleared of any wrongdoing.

“My role was simply working with the community, listening to their feedback,” Hernandez said. “I did my due diligence to ensure that my constituents were heard, validated and and supported.”

Following the complaints, a City Council committee was created made up of Mayor Valerie Amezcua and councilmembers Benjamin Vazquez and Phil Bacerra, who decided the complaints should referred to the third-party law firm. Amezcua, who is also being investigated for alleged hostile working conditions, said she, as mayor, felt “uncomfortable” investigating such matters.

“The fact that there is money involved … it could lead to some illegal behavior. It could be absolutely nothing, but we don’t know,” Amezcua said. “And I don’t feel that as a mayor, that it is my role to investigate if a councilmember broke the law, did not break the law or is harassing or discriminating against employees.”

Both Vazquez and Bacerra said the council only manages three employees – the city manager, city attorney and city clerk – and that councilmembers are not supposed to go directly to department heads or city staffers.

“We should not be giving direction to other staff without going through those channels,” Vazquez said, though he added that he thinks councilmembers should be asked to participate in community event planning. “Who better knows the community than somebody who was elected?”

Parks and recreation department staff were previously directed by the council to involve community organizations when putting together cultural events, including the OC Heritage Council, or OCHC, a nonprofit based in Santa Ana that has hosted the Black History Parade & Unity Festival and the OC Juneteenth Celebration for decades.

Dwayne Shipp, executive director of OCHC, said in Juneteenth planning meetings with the city, which started in 2020, staff made racially offensive comments and gave directions that made members of the organization feel uncomfortable. When asked for details, Shipp said he was told by staff that churches, often cornerstones in the Black community, could not participate in the Juneteenth event. Shipp also said when OCHC made a Juneteenth event flyer, staff said the design was “too Pan-African.”

As a result, Shipp said he asked Hernandez to join them at meetings as a mediator.

“When we originally reached out to Jonathan, it was so he could lend a supportive ear. We never asked him to do nothing other than that because we were having communication barriers,” Shipp said. “A lot of the times, it was just like it was (the city’s) way or no way.”

A city spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the issues raised by the OC Heritage Council.

The letter also alleges that Hernandez solicited donations from trash company Republic Services, OC Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento and Latino-owned brand Suavecito. The letter says those dollars were never received by the city.

Hernandez said the donations and any money made from them – Suavecito donated T-shirts for nonprofit Neutral Ground to sell at the Chicano Heritage Festival – did not go to his office, but were given directly to the nonprofits.

Sarmiento said when he learned that questions were raised about his office’s $2,500 donation for the 2023 Juneteenth Celebration, he wrote a letter to Ridge saying his office’s standard practice was followed for partnerships in sponsoring community events.

“In this case, our check was made payable to the Orange County Heritage Council for their part in helping curate the event,” Sarmiento said in the letter. “For clarity, Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez did not solicit any donation request for the 2023 Juneteenth Celebration from our office.”

A city spokesperson declined to comment on the ongoing investigation, and it is unclear when the results will be presented.

“The message that I wanted people to have is that they were welcome. The city has sent a very different message of resistance, and in the process also criminalizing my office,” Hernandez said about why he initially got more involved. “It is not comforting to know that Santa Ana is still in a dark place where Black people and Chicano people are still being treated this way.”

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.