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Nativo Lopez's Successor Is Sworn In

Orange County

The Santa Ana Unified district board elects its officers in a meeting in which the recalled trustee makes a brief appearance.

February 12, 2003|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

The bitter, nearly yearlong recall saga of Santa Ana school trustee Nativo V. Lopez ended formally Tuesday with the swearing in of his replacement and the election of board officers, signaling a new chapter for the troubled 61,000-student district.

Recall supporters, who packed the boardroom at the Santa Ana Unified district's headquarters on Chestnut Avenue, cheered when newly elected trustee Rob Richardson assumed Lopez's former seat.

"It is my hope that we can restore credibility to this board by conducting business in an open manner," Richardson told an audience that included Santa Ana Mayor Miguel A. Pulido and Councilman Jose Solorio. "The day has passed of board members going directly to staff members and telling them how to do their jobs."

The audience erupted in applause.

Lopez, a longtime immigrants-rights activist who critics said was a divisive force in the community, made a brief appearance later in the evening but left without making any comments. However, several of his supporters made speeches defending the deposed trustee.

Almost immediately, the board elected new officers, replacing trustees John Palacio and Sal Tinajero, viewed as Lopez's allies, as clerk and board president, respectively.

Trustee Rosemarie Avila, who has butted heads with Lopez, Palacio and Tinajero over the years, was elected president. Audrey Y. Noji, who returned to the board in November after being voted out two years ago, was elected vice president. Richardson, a former city councilman and school board member, was named clerk. Palacio and Tinajero joined in the unanimous vote.

Although Tuesday's meeting brought to a close the political campaign that ousted Lopez midway through a second four-year term, issues unearthed in the fierce battle may linger.

State Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim) said Tuesday he has asked the state attorney general's office and the Orange County district attorney's office to investigate allegations by Santa Ana Unified Supt. Al Mijares that Lopez and Palacio committed ethical violations in their dealings with district contractors.

"We need to know if these allegations are true or not," Correa said.

Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, said his office would defer investigation of allegations of criminality to the district attorney's office, which has jurisdiction.

The district attorney's office declined to respond to inquiries from The Times about Correa's letter. The office investigated similar allegations last year and found no evidence of criminal activity.

"The voters have spoken; it is time to move on," said Palacio, who added that he welcomed scrutiny into the previous board majority's actions. "I am looking forward to an opportunity to answer to many allegations which were made but are unfounded."

Mijares' allegations, made just two days before the Feb. 4 election, did not accuse Lopez and Palacio of criminal conduct but said their micromanaging of district contracts breached ethical rules. The trustees countered that it was Mijares' own shortcomings that required their close involvement.

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