During happier times in 2013, Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos shakes hands with Mayor Miguel Pulido while Councilwoman Michele Martinez looks on. Credit: Adam Elmahrek/Voice of OC

The Santa Ana City Council Monday night unanimously approved a top-tier compensation package for incoming City Manager David Cavazos, saying his stewardship will be a “game changer” for a city that has had fractured leadership in recent years.

Council members praised Cavazos — the city’s first Latino city manager — as a candidate who brings invaluable skills, business connections and a proven track record as the city manager of Phoenix. Cavazos’ efforts to turn that city around after the Great Recession should be viewed as a model, the council members said. 

“Phoenix is the best managed city in the United States,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez.

Cavazos takes the helm Oct. 21.

The decision to “reach higher,” as some council members termed it, met some opposition.

Martinez said she received phone calls from residents concerned about Cavazos’ compensation package. Under his three-year contract, Cavazos’ compensation would cost $558,625.85 his first year, $515,395.08 his second year and $515,895.08 his third year.

The annual compensation includes his $315,000 annual base salary plus retirement, medical insurance, life insurance, relocation allowance, temporary housing and time-off costs.

The compensation package is already complicating labor negotiations with the city’s general employees union. Before council members entered a closed session, more than 70 city employees and members of Service Employees International Union Local 721 arrived in force to ask for the return of more than 24 percent in salary cuts made to help the city pull itself from the brink of bankruptcy.

Sergio Verino, president of the Santa Ana general employees union, said that Cavazos’ compensation and previous large payouts to high-ranking managers “definitely affects the morale of the membership.”

Although an expensive hire, Cavazos is expected to take the city and even the region down a new road, council members said.

Members of the council majority, dubbed the “Santa Ana Spring,” have said they want to engage residents in crafting a new vision for their city government. They have passed a sunshine ordinance that calls for strategic planning with residents and community budget meetings, among other things.

The council has also put special emphasis on revitalizing the downtown. Cavazos is credited with such a renewal in Phoenix.

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento said he would like to see Cavazos tap his network of contacts in Washington, D.C., and bring in major private investment, like a hotel and other revenue generating projects.

“This is one of those moment when we can change the path this city is on,” said Sarmiento, who acknowledged that the road in recent years has been “very tortured.”

Cavazos’ appointment comes after a tumultuous period for the city’s leadership.

After longtime former City Manager Dave Ream retired in 2011, council members and Mayor Miguel Pulido haggled behind closed doors for months over his replacement. They eventually settled on former Police Chief Paul Walters, Pulido’s preferred candidate, after some political arm twisting by the mayor.

However, after Walters was credited with resolving a historic budget crisis, council members grew increasingly unhappy with their decision to back Pulido’s candidate. A struggle ensued between the council majority and Pulido for power over the city’s bureaucracy, with the majority finally ousting Walters earlier this year. The move drew dozens of Walters supporters to City Hall to denounce the decision.

The council then appointed interim City Manager Kevin O’Rourke while it launched a nationwide search for a permanent replacement for Walters.

And in April, Deputy City Manager Jill Arthur, who was a close Pulido ally, was placed on administrative leave while the city commissioned an investigation into allegations that she abused her power as a high-ranking city official. Arthur has yet to return to City Hall.

One of Cavazos’ first tasks will be to appoint a replacement for Arthur, who headed the community development agency, and a new public works director.

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

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