Irvine City Manager Resigns Abruptly, Cites Family Concerns

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

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

Irvine City Manager John Russo abruptly announced his retirement in a letter to the city council this past Thursday. His letter comes with just over three months notice, stating he plans to retire on September 8. 

Russo did not respond to requests for comment.

In his letter, Russo cited family concerns as his reason for departure, writing that the loss of his mother and mother in law within the last year and self reflection during the stay at home order led to his decision to retire. 

“I am proud to have had the honor to serve such a great city as Irvine.  I take no credit for all of the progress that has been made in the past two years on so many important matters,” Russo said. “I will always view my tenure here with pride and affection.” 

He also said that he was set to become a grandfather in September, and that it was “an opportunity that I cannot pass up.”

Russo’s resignation comes on the heels of a Voice of OC series examining the city’s relationship with developer FivePoint Holdings in developing the Orange County Great Park, most notably how special taxes collected from Great Park residents are largely financing the largest civic construction project in county history. 

While the residents understood that they were paying additional taxes on their homes, many did not know that those funds were going towards financing projects in the Park. 

The city has also faced intense controversy over efforts to build a state veterans cemetery within the Great Park

After nearly seven years of debate and threatened referendum initiative, the city council approved a site near the Great Park for the project, but state funding was pulled to help counteract the $54 billion deficit created by the coronavirus. 

The city originally published a letter criticizing the Voice of OC series on their city website and sent out several thousand letters to Great Park residents at the taxpayer’s expense, but later reversed course at a meeting last Tuesday criticizing FivePoint for failing to be transparent with the public and the council. 

Councilmembers shared differing reactions to Russo’s retirement letter, with some saying they were completely shocked while others said they were unsurprised. 

“It certainly wasn’t expected on my part, I was very surprised,” Councilman Anthony Kuo said. “I do take him at his word that he probably had some soul searching with his family and decided it was a good time.” 

“Very disappointed, but I’m happy for him. He was very classy,” Councilwoman Melissa Fox said. “It’s a tough job. Irvine is a very difficult city to navigate, but he did just an amazing job.” 

Mayor Christina Shea said she was unsurprised by Russo’s retirement, and that she was disappointed to see him leave. 

“There’s been a few councilmembers who’ve suggested they didn’t want to support him in the future,” Shea said. “I think he brought a lot of diversity and understanding to the job. I really enjoyed working with John.”

Councilmember Farrah Khan said she was not surprised by Russo’s retirement letter, but when asked to comment further she declined to comment, stating that there were still “a few things we’re trying to work out.” 

When asked what the city’s plan was in the search for the next city manager, city spokesperson Melissa Haley said that plans were still developing. 

“I think he gave that substantial leeway to help offset the transition until they determine what they’ll do,” Haley said. 

The timing of Russo’s retirement could lead to complications with choosing his successor, as  there is already debate over appointing a new city manager less than two months before the November election. 

“We have an election in November. So I think it would be rather unfair for this council to pick a replacement when a new city council could be seated just a couple months later,” Kuo said.

Shea echoed Kuo’s idea, emphasizing that it should be the new council’s decision as they would be the ones working with the next manager. 

“It’s really important that the new council makes the position and we bring someone internally to temporarily fill that position,” Shea said. “In January the new council would make the decision.”

Fox said she thought that the council should take advantage of the fact that they had so much advance notice and set up the incoming council with more than an interim city manager. 

“I really think that it’s better to leave a city with new elected officials with strong management experience,” Fox said. 

She also brought up the possibility of promoting from within existing city staff when asked who could potentially take the job next, saying she had been impressed by Assistant City Manager Marianna Marysheva and that there may be low interest in the job in the current situation. 

“We don’t know if there’s anyone who might want to step into that position, given the timing,” Fox said. “We should consider (Marysheva’s) ability to lead.”

Councilmember Mike Carroll did not respond to requests for comment.

Russo was hired by the city in July 2018 after he was fired from his position as the city manager in Riverside during a closed session meeting-less than three months after the city had approved his new contract.

Russo’s termination also came after Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey attempted to veto Russo’s contract and sued the city to argue for his power to veto. Before the case was decided, Russo was let go in a 4-3 decision by the city council in April 2018.  

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

Russo served as Riverside’s city manager from 2015-2018, and also worked as a city manager in Alameda from 2011 to 2015. Before that, he served as a member of the Oakland City Council from 1995 to 2000, and served the next eleven years as Oakland’s City Attorney. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.