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Taking the early train to Riverside?

John Russo, Irvine City Manager. Photo credit: OC Register

In July 2018, Irvine hired a new city manager to replace Sean Joyce – an Irvine resident who held the job since 2005 (Allison Hart had the job from 1999-2005). John Russo landed in Irvine just three months after being fired by the City of Riverside. Russo sought to re-negotiate an already generous contract with even more benefits and pay while Riverside city employees weren’t getting raises and a one percent sales tax plan was being floated. And Russo’s salary and benefits in Irvine are much more generous than what he made in Riverside and a lot more than Sean Joyce was paid for the same job prior to retiring.

In fact, Russo wrote his cover letter and sent his resume into Irvine’s recruiter for the city manager’s job the day he was fired by the Riverside City Council.

Russo’s base salary in Irvine is $303,014.40, according to the two-year employment contract which has the letter of application dated April 17, 2018. With benefits, Russo’s compensation is $456,662. He has since taken a leadership position with the Great Park, likely adding more money to his paycheck and I have a request in with the city for that figure.

Russo addressed his firing with the Voice of OC last July and what he told Irvine city leaders when they asked about this:

“They talked about it with me. I told them to take a look at the news stories written about it,” Russo said. “My firing was purely a political power play.”

From the Voice of OC:

The Press Enterprise reported Russo drew the ire of Riverside council members when he wanted to extend his five-year contract to seven years.

The five-year contract included an annual base salary of $295,000, just over $53,000 in benefits and a three percent annual raise on the condition that his performance reviews were satisfactory. The seven-year contract he proposed included a $675,000 home loan with reduced interest over 15 years and a $6,000 annual car allowance.

I took Russo’s advice and read the stories. I disagree with his take. I think it was more about a city manager asking for more money and more benefits when other city workers were tightening their belts and the City residents were looking at a sales tax increase.

In a statement sent via city of Riverside spokesman Phil Pitchford, the Riverside Press Enterprise reports Russo said: “I’ve loved working with the great team at the city of Riverside,” he said. “We got a lot done, and there’s much more that will be happening as a result of our efforts. As a proud resident, I am looking forward to Riverside’s future.”

And there’s the rub. Russo still resides in Riverside. He’s replaced several longtime Irvine City Hall senior staff with cronies from his days at Riverside including Assistant City Manager Marianna Marysheva, Economic Development professional Kaitlyn Nguyen, and Mark Steuer, Public Works Director. All three worked for Russo in Riverside and all three were hired directly by Russo without any sort of open application process – the sort of thing Irvine Council member Christina Shea used to have kittens about. In a telephone call with TheLiberalOC Tuesday afternoon, Russo praised each member of his team as solid professionals and asserted his authority to hire them directly.

Russo still resides in Riverside, his well-paid Riverside-to-Irvine team appears to continue to reside there as well. Irvine City Hall is open from 7:30 AM to 5:30 PM Monday through Thursday and 8AM to 5PM on Friday. According to multiple sources inside Irvine City Hall and those close to Irvine City Hall, Russo and his Riverside team usually leave the building for the day between 3:00 and 3:45 PM. One source tells me he takes a city requisitioned car to the train station for a train ride back to Riverside nightly to beat the traffic home, even though he has a car allowance in his contract.  A taxpayer-funded Uber?  Russo denies this saying he’s in the office by 7AM most days (and I’m sure there’s security videocam footage to prove it); my sources say he gets in between 9 and 10 AM (same videocam footage would prove that too) and also uses the gym in the public safety building which further eats into his day. How much are taxpayers paying him while he’s doing crunches?

Now on days of city council meetings, Russo has to stick around until the meeting is over which can run late into the evening. But that’s a part of the job for which he makes more money than the Governor of California or the President of the United States.

I started checking in with my sources last week through this week, late in the afternoon, asking if he was in only to be told “he’s left for the day.”

Russo and I had three phone calls Tuesday afternoon; he hung up on me three times. The last call at 4:30PM, was when I asked, “So where are you now? Are you at City Hall or are you in Riverside?” He told me, in a pretty angry voice, it was “none of my business” and to “write what I want.” Then he hung up. I don’t need Mr. Russo’s permission to write what I want.

Now Russo is a Brooklyn attorney and I’m not swayed by his East Coast attitude because I have one myself. But I found the guy to be a bit unhinged when asked about his early departures, and his refusal to answer a simple question of where he was sort of flies in the face of his government transparency issues he likes to champion. I found him to be very Brett Kavanaugh-like. To be fair, he hung up on me once when I told him “bullshit” to one of his answers, because I wasn’t buying what he was selling. So where was he Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 PM?  I’m guessing he was home.

Long commutes suck. When I lived in Boston, my commute was easily an hour each way, in all sorts of bad weather, but if I asked to leave early to beat traffic, I’m not sure how long I’d hold onto that job. For years, my wife commuted to her job at the LA Times in downtown LA while our kids attended IUSD schools. Working from home wasn’t an option for her. And even after getting home, there’s always something both of us had to finish up after dinner and attending to the kids. That’s just life.

My understanding is before Russo, decisions on hiring or firing senior staff and management were presented to the council and open for public comment. Now, it is Russo who initiates this process and unless any council member has a concern, it will not go to the public for comments. Longtime senior staff ought to be worried about who else from Riverside is joining the team. And while City Hall is open until 5:30 PM most weekdays, if the boss and his team leave early, who’s minding the store?  The City Council has been dropping all sorts of hints about revenue shortfalls, so the extra dough going towards big salaries should make you scratch your head if you’re an Irvine resident.

Is it too much to ask a very well-paid city manager and his very well-paid staff to work a full day? As an Irvine resident and taxpayer, I actually demand it.

13 Comments

  1. Duke Duke April 4, 2019

    I would love to leave my job at 3:45.

    • Dan Chmielewski Dan Chmielewski Post author | April 4, 2019

      I haven’t had a vacation in 2 years. Best I can do is a business trip and sneak in a nice dinner.

      • Pam Smith Pam Smith April 8, 2019

        Thank you for your post Dan. John Russo is an abomination. No cost of living raises for City Employees, ridiculous unnecessary upgrades being made to City Hall, and that guy gets almost $500,000 a year and never shows up at important Irvine events? And I suppose his “entourage” gets a pretty penny in salaries as well. They ALL need to go.

  2. Unsuspecting Town of Irvine Unsuspecting Town of Irvine April 4, 2019

    Thirty Miles of Corruption article, “Russo leaves his position with a years severance, the contract entitles Russo to receive pay and other benefits worth about $471,000 this year and a course his $675,000 low-interest home loan. Not to shabby for a short stint, now he will travel to another unsuspecting town.” The “unsuspecting town” is Irvine. Russo’s reputation for being greedy and power hungry precedes him. Look it up. Oakland, Alameda, Riverside, now Irvine. How long before Irvine City realizes the trouble they have on their hands?

    • Dan Chmielewski Dan Chmielewski Post author | April 4, 2019

      interesting blog lots of interesting information on Mr. Russo. The photo of him and staff all wearing sunglasses is very mob like

  3. Harvey Liss Harvey Liss April 4, 2019

    I offered some extremely negative history of John Russo’s background during the City Council meeting at which his hiring contract was approved, and suggested his hiring be put off until those complaints (and lawsuit) published by two different newspapers, be thoroughly reviewed and discussed at a public Council meeting. I was ignored, so I assumed that the fix was in, and that he was already in FivePoint’s bag.

    Thus, nothing in Dan Chmielewski’s article should be surprising to anyone. As long as we have a City Council majority beholden to developer FivePoint, that now virtually owns Irvine, we will see more and more John Russos on the City’s staff. And the formerly great City staff will gradually lose more and more people with strong professional competence and integrity. And if they don’t leave, their motivation will certainly be greatly diminished.

    It’s a bit hypocritical for the City Council to complain about future budget deficits when they hire a City Manager who brings to mind–granted, it’s extreme–the case of Bell’s former City Administrator, Robert Rizzo (onomatopoeic similarity), who is likely to still be in jail after his 12-year sentence in 2014 (NOT for conserving City funds). And the Council seems to be doing nothing to rein him in.

    • Pam Smith Pam Smith April 8, 2019

      Excellent post Harvey. This whole thing horrifies me, so how do we get rid of him?

  4. Irvinian Irvinian April 4, 2019

    Irvine City Council, for the sake of our city, staff, employees, and reputation, please replace John Russo before any more damage is done.

  5. What Marketplace is Russo Living In? What Marketplace is Russo Living In? April 4, 2019

    Russo said in the telephone interview while working for Riverside, “This is the market. Governments are enterprises and should be considered that way. People who want to limit city managers’ wages don’t consider the overall value and experience that someone brings to the table—not just law experience, but business experience. We’re all subject to the marketplace.”

    • Dan Chmielewski Dan Chmielewski Post author | April 4, 2019

      then work a full day and don’t doubledip

  6. Not Surprised Not Surprised April 4, 2019

    I’ve been in local government 30+ years, neither Irvine nor Riverside, but I’m familiar with this guy by reputation. He’s known for coming in and doing Saturday Night Massacres of executives, usually to mollify a city council. He did the same when he started in Riverside. People like this thrive on the chaos they create.

  7. TRUMP + CAIN = INSANE TRUMP + CAIN = INSANE April 6, 2019

    Speaking of chaos, “NINE NINE NINE!!!”

  8. Jason Hunter Jason Hunter April 11, 2019

    Riverside resident and active community member. Russo is a hustler: he comes in and gives tries to win your confidence with things like his sunshine ordinance and two-year budget process, but ultimately is a flimflam man looking to enrich himself and his cronies.

    He’s certainly smart and capable of good management/ideas, but needs to be watched like a hawk: if you don’t have a smart council or a very involved public/press, expect things (and his behavior) to get worse over time. He was only here for 3 years and oversaw raising our sales taxes, utility rates, and fees, while our services dropped. And NEVER let him implement the Partnership Compensation Model in your town; it’s going to end up destroying ours.

    Good luck Irvine: we tried to warn you.

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