Expert: Vote on Santa Ana City Manager’s Bonus Violated State Law

The Santa Ana City Council violated the state’s open meetings law when it met in secret last week to approve a $17,000 performance bonus for City Manager David Cavazos, according to the state’s foremost expert on the law.

Terry Francke, general counsel at Californians Aware, said the council meeting agenda didn’t properly notify the public that council members would be discussing giving Cavazos a bonus. The agenda only stated that council members would be meeting privately to conduct Cavazos’ performance evaluation.

Under the state law, known as the Ralph M Brown Act, the council can’t take action on anything that isn’t on the agenda.

“If [the bonus] was not on the agenda, then they took that action unlawfully,” Francke said.

Council members can only discuss the bonus behind closed doors if the agenda states they will be conferring with a bargaining agent regarding the city manager’s compensation, Francke said. But even then, they have to conduct the final vote in public for the bonus to be approved legally, he said.

Furthermore, the council’s decision to form a subcommittee to negotiate an extension to Cavazos’ contract was also illegal because the action wasn’t on the council agenda, Francke said.

A resident could challenge the approval of the bonus by issuing a letter to city officials demanding a public redo of the vote and a promise from the city not to violate the Brown Act again, according to Francke.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who along with Mayor Miguel Pulido voted against the bonus, said she asked Cavazos whether it should be approved in public as part of a budget amendment, and Cavazos told her it wasn’t necessary.

Martinez said in a text message she believes that the bonus should be voted on in public and that Cavazos “new(sic) the law.”

“This whole process was weird and I had no idea they would be approving a bonus that evening,” Martinez wrote.

It’s City Attorney Sonia Carvalho’s job to make sure the council follows the Brown Act. And while Carvalho announced the 5-2 vote once the council convened publicly for its open session, she “was not in the room” when the council had its closed-door meeting, Martinez said.

Carvalho didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

The Brown Act violation is just the latest controversy to erupt related to Cavazos’ pay. When he was first hired in 2013, the council granted him a compensation package worth over $500,000 annually, making him one of the highest paid city managers in the state.

He was in line to receive a performance bonus a year after he was hired, but the council decided against it after public outcry. Council members instead a few weeks later approved a $4,000 raise for Cavazos that would be deposited into a retirement health savings account. The cost of the increase was expected to be offset by a medical benefit reduction.

At the time the raise was approved, Martinez said she wanted to discuss it in closed session. But Carvalho dashed that idea when she said under the Brown Act contract terms could only be discussed in public.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

  • LFOldTimer

    With all due respect to the General Counsel – it’s becoming more and more common in our society that the laws to not apply to the ones in charge. I could give you example after example during a 6 hour conversation and never repeat myself. So IMO regardless whether the state’s open meeting law was violated or not – Cavalos keeps his $17,000. We’re living in a brand new age. The laws only apply to the little people. Welcome to our new America.

  • RyanCantor

    Ah, the sweet irony. Doing a job poorly nets a bonus for doing a job well.

  • mutheta

    Cavazos and RSCCD Chancellor Rodriguez must have studied the Brown Act together. In a July article, the VoC reported Rodriguez claimed the Brown Act was not applicable to an agreement the District entered into, only to find out he was wrong. And now Cavazos claims discussion of his bonus does not need to adhere to the Brown Act.

    It’s time for these elected board members to conduct their own due diligence. If they feel that is too much of a burden, then maybe they should hire leaders who understand the laws that govern public entities.

    • Philmore

      Remember the old saw “Forgiveness is always easier than permission”? When perps get jail time instead of Taxpayer – paid (Or lobbyist-through-campaign-committee-paid) fines or “do-overs”, perhaps improvement will start. Until then, no breath – holding here.

      • LFOldTimer

        It’ll be a very cold day in hades when this or similar acts of mischief gets prosecuted under the law in the OC. You’re smart not to hold your breath. I’m afraid that the Wall Street immunity phenomenon has spread like wildfire. But don’t you make a left hand turn over a double yellow. They’ll be there to nab ya! 😉