Santa Ana Extends City Manager’s Contract, Publicly Approves Bonus

Amid allegations that the Santa Ana City Council illegally approved a $17,000 bonus for City Manager David Cavazos behind closed doors last month, council members Tuesday night approved the bonus, plus a contract extension in open session.

Both items were approved in a pair of 5-2 votes, with Mayor Miguel Pulido and Councilwoman Michele Martinez opposed. Pulido and Martinez had also voted against the bonus in closed session, with Pulido saying it was improper to grant the incentive while Cavazos is under a city investigation for his romantic relationship with a city employee, among other allegations.

Council members who support the bonus said keeping Cavazos was crucial because he is an “MVP” who was key to turning around the city’s finances.

Cavazos’ contract wasn’t set to expire until Oct. 21, 2017. The new deal extends that date to Feb. 16, 2019. It also contains an amendment that allows Cavazos to cash out a portion of his accrued unused sick leave. Before the amendment, Cavazos couldn’t cash out any sick leave, he told Voice of OC.

In addition to Cavazos’ bonus, the council in a separate vote approved a performance bonus for City Clerk Maria Huizar worth nearly $8,200. Her bonus passed unanimously.

When the council first approved Cavazos’ bonus last month, statewide open government expert Terry Francke said the council had violated California’s open meetings law, known as the Ralph M Brown Act, when it met behind closed doors to discuss the incentive. Francke said the law was broken because the meeting agenda didn’t notify the public that the bonus would be considered.

After the vote, Cavazos told Voice of OC that the bonus was approved in public to address a “question mark” about how the vote was previously taken. “In the spirit of transparency, it’s always good to put it on the agenda when there’s a question mark,” he said.

Despite the public vote, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said she believed the meeting was legal because Cavazos’ contract already calls for the council to consider a performance bonus. She also said it was her “personal preference” to conduct the vote in public.

In light of Cavazos’ relationship with a city employee, Pulido asked the council to consider a contract amendment that would bar the city manager from dating city employees, a provision that Carvalho dubbed a “morality clause.” However, his suggestion was shot down in a 5-2 vote without discussion that mirrored the votes on Cavazos’ contract extension and bonus.

Pulido also had questions about whether the council had truly decided in closed session to form a three-member ad-hoc committee to make recommendations on Cavazos’ contract extension. Pulido said he doesn’t recall that decision.

Martinez criticized the process, saying that doing it behind closed doors and in secret was how former city leaders at Bell — a tiny municipality in south Los Angeles County known for exorbitant salaries that landed city officials in prison — found themselves in trouble.

Martinez said neither the city clerk nor the city attorney were present for the vote on the bonus, and that when Carvalho reported it publicly out of closed session, the information came to her from Cavazos.

“We all know the Bell experiences,” Martinez said.

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