Santa Ana City Manager Acknowledges Romance With Employee

Adam Elmahrek/Voice of OC

During happier times in 2013, Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos shakes hands with Mayor Miguel Pulido while Councilwoman Michele Martinez looks on.

Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos in a letter released Tuesday night acknowledged having a romantic relationship with a city employee.

Cavazos defended the relationship in the Aug. 27 letter to Mayor Miguel Pulido as a private matter between two people and not in violation of city policy or “any federal, state or city rule or statute.”

“Absent some proof that I have violated my contract, rule, policy or any law, I would appreciate that you respect my privacy and the privacy of City employees,” Cavazos wrote in the letter, which Voice of OC obtained under the California Public Records Act.

(Click here to read the full Cavazos letter.)

But government ethics experts say a romantic relationship between a city manager and a city employee crosses ethical lines. It’s fraught with conflicts of interests, often viewed as suspicious by other employees and could even open the door to lawsuits, experts said.

Hanna Callaghan, director of the government ethics program at the Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, says in general employees might question whether the employee dating the chief executive has an unfair advantage in getting the next promotion or “plumb assignment.”

“It’s the sort of conflict of interest that would arise in any business situation,” Callaghan said.

Cavazos points out in his letter that the employee isn’t a direct subordinate and that he’s had “no work interaction” with her.

But Martha Perego, ethics director at the International City/County Management Association, said it’s difficult to raise issues with an employee dating the city manager, or even that employee’s department, out of fear it could upset the city manager or affect the relationship.

No matter how low on the totem pole, the employee “reports to somebody who reports to somebody… that ultimately reports to the city manager,” Perego said.

“The relationship just clouds the whole issue,” she said.

It could also open the city to legal liability if a manager tries to discipline or fire that employee, Perego said, because the employee could view it as retaliation for a breakup or a bad argument.

“In this day and age, it is a significant liability to the organization,” Perego said.

Further complicating the issue are assertions from sources close to City Hall that the employee has been a member of the general employees union’s negotiating team. The union is currently negotiating a new labor contract with city leaders.

The sources say Pulido harshly criticized Cavazos for carrying on the relationship during a meeting with union leaders. The mayor went so far as to as to name the city employee in the meeting, sources said.

But in a letter to Voice of OC, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho stated that the employee isn’t currently on the negotiating team and “has never attended current negotiating sessions with any member of the city’s negotiating team, including Mr. Cavazos.”

It’s unclear when or why the employee withdrew from the team, or what her status is at City Hall. When a reporter emailed her about this story late last month, an auto response came back saying she is “out of the office indefinitely.”

A reporter was present at Tuesday night’s council meeting, but Cavazos rushed out a side-door exit as soon as the meeting ended and before the reporter could approach him for comment. An attempt to reach him after the meeting was unsuccessful.

The relationship has for weeks been an open secret among the higher levels of City Hall, but only became public Tuesday night after the City Council decided in closed session to release the letter to Voice of OC.

City officials had at first refused to disclose the letter, arguing that it was exempt from the law’s disclosure requirements because it involved a personnel matter. They relented after Kelly Aviles, an open records attorney working with Voice of OC, argued the exemption doesn’t apply to high-ranking public officials like Cavazos.

(Click here to read the full Voice of OC demand letter.)

The letter was made public “with the consent of the City Manager even though it is directly related to his performance evaluation and may be deemed privileged,” Carvalho wrote. “The City Council and the City Manager understand the public interest in this matter and desire to support transparency by releasing this letter.”

Carvalho also wrote that she and council members reviewed the issue and at least a majority found he hasn’t violated any city rules or laws.

Council members reached for comment said they have no problem with Cavazos dating a city employee, at least for now. And according to sources, most council members – with the exception of Pulido and Councilwoman Michele Martinez – are backing Cavazos on the matter.

Neither Pulido nor Martinez could be immediately reached for comment.

Councilman David Benavides said he doesn’t see a conflict of interest with the relationship and dismissed speculation that employees might question promotions or perks as premature.

“To make the assumption that there will be some type of mishandling of a potential promotion, I think it’s getting really ahead of the game, and I’m more inclined to let my employees live their personal lives… so long as it doesn’t conflict,” Benavides said. “I want happy employees and happy employees produce work. It’s a benefit for the city and the community for people to be able to live their personal lives in a way they can enjoy.”

Benavides said making an issue out of the relationship might be “personally motivated” – a veiled reference to Pulido and Martinez – but stopped short of naming anyone.

“I can’t speak for anyone,” Benavides said.

Councilwoman Angelica Amezcua’s response was somewhat critical of Cavazos’ choice, but she also said that from a larger perspective the city manager has been doing a “great job” administering the city. Amezcua said she wants to take a wait and see approach.

“I’m not sure that’s the best choice. I can see why it’s being questioned,” Amezcua said. “I want to make sure the city doesn’t put itself in a position where we’re liable if it doesn’t work out.”

If the council does take any action in the future because of the relationship, it most likely won’t be to fire Cavazos, Amezcua said.

“I can tell you that I don’t think he’s going to be terminated over this. Then we would probably even be liable,” Amezcua said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

  • OCservant_Leader

    I hear wedding bells…

    In the OC the power abusing elite all come to the same crossroads.

    Which will they choose? An ugly public sexual harassment suit & trial or marriage?

    I’m putting my money on the OC newbie putting a ring on it.

    Just watch the power couple rise.

  • LFOldTimer

    Did the Register report on this? I haven’t seen any mention of it. This is important news that the public should know about. IF the Register didn’t report it …..why not? I believe a newspaper’s #1 obligation is to keep the people aware of ethical controversies surrounding those who run our governments. The media is our final line of defense against runaway governments. The media’s job is to protect us from government tyranny. And generally, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. If the Register did report on this would somebody point me in the right direction? Otherwise, you should be as concerned as I am.

  • Judy Allen

    Another whacky one using our tax dollars for his own purposes! What about the slaughtered animals in the pound?

  • Rintrah

    Whatever happened to Gustavo Arellano’s “Banana Republic” column? Santa Ana needs Gustavo- the clown Iglesias on the school board is begging for a “Gussing!”

  • 6eaie2

    Why does the Santa Ana City Council majority believe they must have evidence of wrongdoing when the appearance of impropriety is independent of the act of impropriety?

    The purpose of the Fair Political Practices Commission ethics regulations are not just to control human behavior that undermines the public trust, but to control the opportunities that encourage such behavior.

    Ironically, all elected and appointed officials are required to pass the FPPC’s online ethics exam immediately after taking office . . .

  • Kathleen Tahilramani

    Gawd…..Don’t fish off the company pier……

    • LFOldTimer

      After I hit puberty my dad always told me to never dip my pen into the company ink. It took me a few years to understand what the heck he meant. When I finally figured it out a light came on and I realized the value of his advice. Over the years I’ve seen lots of good men take a hard fall for not following it. It would seem that a man with many decades under his belt pulling down over $700,000 in compensation would have the insight to avoid such perilous behavior. But I don’t blame him as much as I do the ones who made the hire and willfully allow it. What a clown circus.

      • Kathleen Tahilramani

        In my 31 years of government employment – to be fair, I have seen many women take advantage of men to obtain perks, promotions and pay….There is poor judgment on both sides of the table. And what is odd is they all think they are invisible and nobody knows what’s going on……ha.. people are not stupid.

        • LFOldTimer

          The higher ranking one (man or woman) with the power to hire and fire and broad influence over the organizational structure is the one to blame. With rank comes responsibility in any organization. That’s the reason officers in the military can be court martialed under the UCMJ for dating or “fraternizing” with lower ranking subordinates. There’s a very logical reason for that. Corporations generally don’t tolerate it either. It could open up a Pandora’s Box of problems. The question is: Why would the City of Santa Ana tolerate it and risk potential harm to the taxpayers?

          • Judy Allen

            Because they are only “out for themselves” and not us? Us meaning the tax payers of Orange County? The whole of this batch of fools need investigation and maybe all MUST be fired for NOT doing their jobs. What about the mass slaughter of homeless animals in the pound?

  • LFOldTimer

    Look at Michelle Martinez’ face in the background. The expression looks like something you would expect from a 10 year old girl standing a few feet away from a pop rock star. I wonder if she asked for his autograph? Oh, how fast they fall from grace! ha. Is this the best quality of people that they can find to run for political office these days? Seriously? Or does the Democrat and Republican parties eliminate all the decent ones through their vetting process before they get face time with the public? Based on what we’re left with on election day it makes me wonder.

    • Judy Allen

      PLEASE remember the mass slaughter of the homeless animals in the dirty, poorly managed pound!

  • David Zenger

    “Cavazos points out in his letter that the employee isn’t a subordinate…”

    BS. How can a city employee NOT be a subordinate to the City Manager? Does this boob think no one has ever read an org chart?

  • LFOldTimer

    I knew this guy would be a bag of trouble when they hired him. Unless you’re living in a cave and have had no connection with the outside world you understand the ramifications of a leader in any organziation having romantic rendezvous with a subordinate. In the military officers get court martialed for it. There’s a reason for that. And if Cavazos is married has anyone bothered to get his wife’s opinion on this? What complicates matters even more is that this woman has apparently been a member of the general employees union negotiating team. Even though she doesn’t currently sit on the team don’t you think she might be able to influence a decision making authority in the heat of the night? And the article didn’t mention what title this woman holds or on which level of government she works. All I know is that if I was her direct supervisor and I knew that she was dating the City Manager, no way would I treat her like any other employee when it came to performance evaluations or disciplinary matters if I valued my job. This has full of far reaching ramifications. Mostly, most of us would agree that this crosses ethical lines. If the CEO of a City is willing to cross this ethical line, what other ethical lines would he be willing to cross? Can’t Cavazos find a date off city property? Really stupid. My opinion? Send him back to Phoenix and find a replaement.

  • RyanCantor

    “Absent some proof that I have violated my contract, rule, policy or any law . . . ”

    Typical. Because I “can” do it automatically creates justification for “should” do it. <– Not exactly a quality we're looking for in those we invest the public's trust.

    1) Time for a new policy

    2) The golden parachute this guy has is looking REALLY great right now isn't it?

    3) Fire him anyway