Paul Walters in 2008, when he was Santa Ana's police chief; he later… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)
The administrator credited with steering Santa Ana away from potential bankruptcy has been abruptly fired, exposing a deepening fissure among political leaders in Orange County's second-largest city.
City Manager Paul Walters, who had been the city's longtime police chief before being asked to resolve a $35-million budget shortfall, was seen as an ally of Santa Ana's longtime mayor, Miguel Pulido. But Pulido's power in the town has eroded and he is increasing isolated by council colleagues.
"It's also about laying the foundation of transparency and breaking the shackles of the current centralized form of government that the mayor has enjoyed for the last 26 years," said Sal Tinajero, the city's mayor pro tem.
Pulido was the only member of the council to oppose Walters' termination. The mayor did not return calls seeking comment.
Tinajero said the council will meet Thursday to discuss the terms of Walters' dismissal.
Walters, once a front-runner to replace Sheriff Michael Carona after the lawman was convicted of witness tampering, declined to comment. His contract shows he's paid $265,000 per year.
Tom Lutz, a former city councilman, called the action a "political ploy" that could damage the city's recruiting power when it looks for a new city manager.
"Nobody is going to want to take that chance in any sort of a nationwide search," Lutz said. "It's not a good precedent to put out there."
Tinajero said he could not comment on the specifics of Walters' termination because it is a personnel matter, but said the council has evolved over recent years and has reached the point where the mayor is no longer running the city.
In the November election, Councilman David Benavides ran against Pulido, a move that was then called an "awakening within the city" by Tinajero. Despite the challenge and the lack of support from employee unions, Pulido easily won reelection.
Tinajero said that Pulido has gone against council directives by attempting to get city staff to delay certain projects, leaving other council members feeling powerless.
"Last night, what the city was looking toward was democracy and the implementation of democracy," Tinajero said.
Times staff writer Nicole Santa Cruz contributed to this report