The Irvine City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to hire John Russo as its new city manager, despite a pay increase controversy and contract dispute from his past city manager position in Riverside.

Russo said in a telephone interview he was “long past” the issue with his prior employer and that it was something Irvine council members brought up during the hiring process.

“They talked about it with me. I told them to take a look at the news stories written about it,” Russo said. “My firing was purely a political power play.”

Russo’s starting salary with Irvine will be an annual $303,014.40, according to the two-year employment contract. Russo said that amount is his base salary without benefits. The total, including benefits, is approximately $456,662.

“He has an excellent statewide reputation for being a champion for local democracy,” said Mayor Don Wagner of the new city manager, who also is a lawyer and former Oakland city attorney, among other roles.

Irvine Councilman Jeff Lalloway wouldn’t discuss the controversy surrounding the 59-year-old Russo, but he said after the meeting Russo’s qualifications placed him at the “top of the list.”

During public comment, resident Harvey Liss questioned the council’s decision to bring on someone with Russo’s controversial history.

Responded Councilwoman Christina Shea, “First of all, the city managers and politicians are under scrutiny, constantly. Our recruiter did a complete research and investigation, came back to us and shared everything about all the candidates. We believe that he’s going to be a very strong city manager.”

She also called the selection of Russo a “home run.”

In application for Irvine City Manager cover letter, Russo listed a number of achievements during his three years at Riverside, but described his experience with its city hall as “unusually toxic.”

The Press Enterprise reported Russo drew the ire of Riverside council members when he wanted to extend his five-year contract to seven years.

The five-year contract included an annual base salary of $295,000, just over $53,000 in benefits and a three percent annual raise on the condition that his performance reviews were satisfactory. The seven-year contract he proposed included a $675,000 home loan with reduced interest over 15 years and a $6,000 annual car allowance.

Since he started at Riverside in 2015, Russo’s yearly pay and benefits totaled over $400,000 by the time he asked to renegotiate his contract mid-term. Governor Jerry Brown makes $268,039.80 annually in total pay and benefits, according to Transparent California.

In a Feb. 6 letter to the council obtained by the Press Enterprise, Mayor Rusty Bailey denounced Russo for asking for a pay raise while the city was in the middle of pushing a one percent sales tax increase and facing a potential deficit. He called Russo’s request “bad timing” and “a bad precedent.”

“When I learned that some of our least compensated employees agreed to skip raises in 2016-17, I asked (Russo) to make a symbolic good faith gesture and to voluntarily forego his guaranteed 3% raise. He refused. He wasn’t interested in leading by example,” Bailey said in the letter.

Russo said in the telephone interview “This is the market. Governments are enterprises and should be considered that way. People who want to limit city managers’ wages don’t consider the overall value and experience that someone brings to the table—not just law experience, but business experience. We’re all subject to the marketplace.”

Prior to Riverside, Russo worked as city manager for Alameda from 2011 to 2015, where he made over $166,000 in total pay and benefits in his last year, according to Transparent California. Before that, Russo served as an Oakland City Council member from 1995 to 2000 while also working as a lawyer for the Oakland firm Bell, Rosenberg & Hughes. Russo then served as city attorney for Oakland from 2000-2011, where he left with an approximate $150,000 in total pay and benefits.

Although the Riverside contract extension was approved 5-2 on Feb. 6, with council members Chuck Conder and Jim Perry opposing, Bailey attempted to veto the decision at the end of that meeting and then sued the city on March 9. The council voted to fire Russo 10 weeks later, on April 17, before the matter could be settled in court.

“I had no fight with Bailey. His battle was not with me,” Russo said. “It was with the city’s municipal code that doesn’t lend him the power he thinks he has.”

Because he was fired without cause, Russo said he was able to keep his home loan.

Russo also said he doesn’t have a problem with being paid approximately $20,000 less at Irvine, which he had to negotiate, because he holds the city in “high regard.”

Irvine selected Russo from a pool of 40 applicants, according to the staff report. Irvine’s previous city manager, Sean Joyce, retired in February.

Joyce’s total pay and benefits, as of 2017, amounted to just over an annual $450,000, according to Transparent California. The regular annual salary Joyce left with, around $294,000, is about $9,000 less than Russo’s starting pay.

Russo starts Monday.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. He can be reached at bpho@voiceofoc.org.

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