Effort to Discipline/Fire Irvine City Manager Fails

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Irvine City Manager John Russo at the Dec. 19, 2019 City Council meeting.

An effort to seemingly oust Irvine City Manager John Russo collapsed at last night’s city council meeting, with a 4-1 vote that saw a closed session item to discuss disciplining or dismissing Russo completely wiped from the agenda.

Moments after calling the council’s regular public meeting to order, Mayor Christina Shea quickly moved to defend Russo putting forward a motion to remove a closed session proposal, titled “Public employee discipline/ dismissal/ release.” 

Voice of OC reported on Monday that Russo was the public employee under review, with two council members Farrah Khan and Anthony Kuo sponsoring the proposal to review Russo.

Shea’s motion to immediately kill debate and vote was seconded by Councilmember Michael Carroll. 

When Kuo, one of the councilmembers who sponsored the motion, attempted to discuss the item on the dais, Shea quickly stated that since a motion to vote was already in consideration there couldn’t be any discussion.

Shea, Carroll, Kuo and Councilmember Melissa Fox then immediately voted to erase the item. 

Khan was left as the only supporting vote to discuss disciplining or dismissing Russo in closed session.

When asked after the meeting why he backed out on supporting the motion Kuo said that Russo’s name being publicly exposed “tainted,” the process, specifically calling out Fox and Branda Lin, Councilwoman Khan’s appointee to the Community Services Commission who posted that Russo was up for removal on her Facebook page. 

Lin’s posts on Facebook and comments in an article posted on the Irvine Watchdog website stated that due to a city council ordinance in March 2019 that gave Russo control over the hiring and firing of senior staff, he was the only possible person that would be directly discussed under the city council.

The ordinance gave the city manager the power to hire and fire as long as they informed the city council in advance, but it also noted that any member of the council could call for a full review of the matter.

“A lot of what was discussed was speculation,” Kuo said. “It was put (in closed session) to preserve someone’s anonymity.”

In an interview after the meeting, Fox mentioned that she learned about Russo’s potential removal from Lin’s Facebook post.

“I have had no info whatsoever, no councilmember or the mayor has spoken to me at all,” Fox said. “I have no knowledge from it other than that and there’s been no contradiction by anyone.”

Khan did not comment on her support of a closed session discussion to fire or discipline Russo but did condemn Fox for discussing Russo’s review in a text to Voice of OC after the meeting.

“Councilwoman Fox shouldn’t have spoken about a closed session item. She may not have violated the Brown Act, but she certainly violated the spirit of the Brown Act by making future privileged communications public. 

Shea also spoke out against the public reveal of Russo’s personnel discussions after the meeting, referring to a post from the blog The Liberal OC discussing if Russo was leaving.

“The comments (on the post) when I read it was a violation of our closed session when we discussed his contract several months ago, so whoever leaked that to the OC liberal violated the law,” Shea said. “It became a public embarrassment for our city manager, and we don’t do this with our employees.”

Russo spoke about the cut item after the meeting, expressing his thanks to the council members that voted against the item adding that “there was nothing there.”

“It’s disappointing that items that are required to be handled as private personnel matters were made into a small campaign,” Russo said. “I’m near the end of my career, but something like that could be devastating to someone with many years ahead of them.”

No reason was released regarding why Khan and Kuo were interested in reviewing Russo, but the city does have the power to fire him without cause according to his contract, although he would have to be paid severance.

Leading up to the vote, many city councilmembers didn’t know why Russo’s employment was up for consideration.

“I have no idea what Anthony (Kuo) and Farrah (Khan) are proposing, but I’m very frustrated and upset at how they’re trying to embarrass the city employees,” Shea in a phone call with Voice of OC hours before the closed session. “Never in 25 years have I seen something proposed that turns into a three-ring circus.”

Fox also expressed a similar lack of information in a conversation with Voice of OC on Monday.

“I’m aware of nothing John Russo has done to warrant any discipline or firing,” Fox said.

Russo came to Irvine in July 2018 after he was fired from Riverside in April of that year over a contract dispute where he also worked as a city manager.

According to the Press-Enterprise, Russo was fired from Riverside in a 4-3 vote in a closed session meeting by a council that only weeks earlier had extended his contract against the wishes of Mayor Rusty Bailey.

Bailey later sued the city to establish that he had the power to veto Russo’s contract, and that litigation is still ongoing.