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.