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

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 aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

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