The Santa Ana school board jumped into the middle of a raging recall battle against one of its members by voting to spend up to $30,000 to examine allegations that voters were deceived when they signed petitions calling for the ouster of trustee Nativo Lopez.
The 3-1 vote, cast in a closed session late Tuesday night, immediately touched off a flurry of reaction from recall supporters in the district.
Recall backers, who blame Lopez for academic failures in the 62,000-student district, say the move is a thinly veiled attempt by the trustee’s allies on the board to stop a special recall election, which could take place as early as January. Board members Nadia Maria Davis, John Palacio and Sal Tinajero, who voted for the motion, denied the decision was politically motivated.
They said an examination is necessary to make sure an eventual election, which would cost the district $125,000 to $200,000, is not voided because it was on the ballot illegally.
Trustee Rosemarie Avila voted against the motion. Lopez recused himself.
“The only way we can use public funds [for the election] is if we have a legal mandate to do that,” Davis said. “That duty has been questioned because the district has received allegations that the recall signatures were gathered based on fraud.”
Last month, the Orange County registrar of voters certified 9,685 recall-petition signatures, about 1,000 more than the minimum needed to qualify for an election. Among the 14,826 signatures submitted, the registrar invalidated 4,476 and found 359 duplications.
About the same time, dozens of Lopez supporters showed up at a school board meeting, demanding an investigation into allegations that recall campaigners lied to voters and gathered signatures improperly. Recall backers deny they did anything wrong.
On Monday, Tom Crofoot, Orange County senior deputy district attorney, said he reviewed documents submitted by Lopez supporters and found no evidence of election-law violations. Palacio suggested more evidence may be forthcoming.
Trustee Davis said the district has a duty to make sure the allegations are not true and won’t derail any special election.
About $8,000 of the amount approved Tuesday will be used to file a court petition to get access to the petition signatures, now under seal with the registrar. If a judge grants permission, a paid consultant will randomly call 400 petition signers to determine if the signatures are legitimate.
The board is scheduled to set a date for the special election at its next meeting, Oct. 22. Davis said trustees expect to resolve questions about the signatures by then.
The latest development marked yet another milestone in this year’s pitched battle for control of the severely overcrowded Santa Ana Unified School District, Orange County’s largest. Lopez, first elected in 1996, has dismissed the recall campaign as the effort of a few disgruntled parents fueled by support from residents at the city’s wealthier north end who oppose a new elementary school in their neighborhood.
Palacio and Davis, viewed by many as Lopez’s ideological allies on the board, face tough reelection contests Nov. 5. Lopez was reelected to a second four-year term in November 2000.