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

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