Santa Ana City Manager Criticized for Awarding Executive Bonuses

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.

The city of Santa Ana is in a far better place financially than it was just a few years ago when, in the wake of the Great Recession, officials were openly talking about the possibility of bankruptcy.

And after a long period of belt-tightening, all city employees received pay raises of 2.5 percent last year and another 2.5 percent this July.

But top executives have received an even sweeter deal, with extra 5-percent “performance bonuses” going to City Manager David Cavazos’ seven highest-ranking deputies. The bonus program has drawn the ire of the city’s rank-and-file labor groups, as well as Councilwoman Michele Martinez.

“[It’s] not equitable, and it’s not fair,” said Martinez, who has frequently clashed with Cavazos, in an interview this week.

Martinez said she believes top executives do deserve a bonus for the “extra and extraordinary work” that they do. “But we also have to keep in mind at the same time our lower-level employees are doing their best job as well, and we’re not giving them any bonus pay.”

Leaders of the city’s two largest labor groups – who together represent over 90 percent of the workforce – criticized the bonuses in statements to Voice of OC.

“We’re disappointed to learn that the hard earned tax dollars of Santa Ana residents have gone towards incentives and bonuses for highly paid top officials instead of the vital city services our community needs,” said Mike Lopez, president of the Santa Ana chapter of Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents almost all rank-and-file workers at the city from librarians to city planners.

Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, said top officials should be “absolutely leading by example” when it comes to pay increases.

“When the city manager preaches equality…why is it that it’s not practiced at every level?” he asked.

In response to the criticism, Cavazos said rank-and-file workers have benefits that executives don’t, like 5-percent “step” increases during each of their first five years, as well as overtime pay.

“Overtime pay is not available to executives and managers. The one time performance bonus for an executive and Police Manager is not carried forward to the next year,” Cavazos wrote in an email to Voice of OC, noting that police managers are the other group that receives performance bonuses.

He added that awarding performance bonuses to executives and manager is a practice in Santa Ana dating back to the 1990s.

“The system is fair but not perfect (eg. Overtime for some and not others) in my view and we are open to changes in compensation philosophy as part of collective bargaining,” Cavazos wrote. “We very much appreciate the work of all our employees and believe the 5 percent across the board [cost of living pay increases] was well deserved.”

The bonuses were not given out during the recession, and then re-instated a month before Cavazos was hired in September 2013 by then-interim City Manager Kevin O’Rourke, according to Ed Raya, the city’s personnel director.

O’Rourke granted 7.5-percent bonuses to all executive managers at the time, and Cavazos provided 5-percent bonuses in 2014 and 2015.

Raya provided a list of the executive bonus amounts and percentages for 2015, which were based on a 15-month salary period from Sept. 1, 2014 through Nov. 30, 2015. Here is a rundown of who received the bonuses, how much their bonuses were, and their current salary.

  • Carlos Rojas, police chief: $14,746 bonus. Current salary: $232,860.
  • Francisco Gutierrez, executive director of finance and management services: $11,417 bonus. Current salary: $181,908.
  • Gerardo Mouet, exec. dir. of recreation and community services: $11,417 bonus. Current salary: $181,908.
  • Farhad Mousavipour, exec. dir. of public works: $11,168 bonus. Current salary: $186,456.
  • Edward Raya, exec. dir. of personnel services: $10,474 bonus. Current salary: $164,784.
  • Kelly Reenders, exec. dir. of community development: $10,175 bonus. No longer with the city, but the current salary for that position is $164,784.
  • Robert Cortez, special assistant to the city manager: $5,780 bonus. Current salary: $177,456.
  • Hassan Haghani, exec. dir. of planning and building safety: $2,562 bonus (2.5 percent bonus because he was hired halfway through year). Current salary: $200,796.

Last year’s bonuses total $77,740. Lopez, the union leader, suggested such funding could be better used on community services, like repairing sidewalks and addressing the growing homeless population at the Civic Center.

“These present real public safety concerns – from proper staffing at the community spaces where our families gather, to the hundreds of used hypodermic needles littering the space around the permanent homeless encampment just a stone’s throw from City Hall. Clearly, our city’s priorities are off,” Lopez said.

Martinez was the only council member who spoke with Voice of OC about the executive bonuses.

Pulido and councilmen David Benavides and Sal Tinajero didn’t return voicemails seeking comment. Calls to council members Angelica Amezcua and Roman Reyna led to messages saying their voicemail boxes were full.

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento told a Voice of OC reporter that he would try his best to follow up later, but didn’t.

Cavazos, who made over $450,000 in total compensation last year, himself received a “performance bonus” of 5 percent, or $17,000, in January. In giving him the bonus, council members said they were rewarding Cavazos for the city’s return to financial stability after the Great Recession years.

Martinez and Pulido were the only no votes against the bonus for Cavazos.

At a meeting last December, Martinez spoke against the executive bonuses, saying that after the performance bonuses, giving executives the 5-percent citywide raise – as requested by Cavazos at that meeting – would be unfair to rank-and-file employees.

While a majority of council members voted for the item, Reyna was the only one to speak in support of it. He said Cavazos has been doing “phenomenal” work for the city, including getting grants that have brought in “millions of dollars” into the community.

“Through his leadership, our city is very different today,” Reyna said. “I truly believe that this is taking our city into a better direction.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.