Across Orange County, a government leadership vacuum has left multiple cities searching for city managers and city council members at a time when crucial decisions are being made.
Right now, the cities of Westminster, Irvine and Fullerton are all searching for a city manager while considering their long term COVID relief spending plans and looking at what their city’s role will be in the days to come.
In Westminster, the vacuum has persisted for so long that it’s forced the City Clerk into the unusual position of filling in as City Hall’s top executive, acting as the City Manager in a temporary capacity.
Westminster City Clerk Christine Cordon — who for years has overseen city records, administered local electoral processes and tallied votes among City Council members during public meetings — is the city’s fourth top executive in the last year-and-a-half.
The Irvine City Council just chose to extend their interim city manager Marianna Marysheva’s contract, after failing to find a city manager in the year since former manager John Russo’s retirement.
Marysheva previously served as the assistant city manager, but with her new extension will have served as interim manager for over a year, holding the job until at least January 10, 2022.
The council is also set to discuss the permanent position behind closed doors today, in a special meeting at 8:30 a.m., with plans to fill the job by the end of the year.
Westminster City Council members are also set to discuss the status of the city manager’s position on Wednesday, during a closed-door meeting.
Meanwhile, in Fullerton, the city is currently looking for its next city manager after firing their last city manager Ken Domer in April without ever saying why, the city’s second city manager within five years.
The city’s previous manager Joe Felz resigned in late 2016 after an election night car crash when he had been drinking, pleading guilty to reckless driving involving alcohol in 2017.
The interim city manager is Steve Danley, a former performance auditor for the county government who served as human resources director until he retired in 2015.
When Domer was cut loose, City Councilman Fred Jung said it could take up until fall for the permanent manager to be hired, but there’s been no update on the city’s timeline since then. The council is scheduled to discuss the issue at their meeting on Tuesday night.
Alongside the vacancies with top city staff, an unusually high number of city councils have found themselves faced with an opening, as a steady stream of council members in some of the county’s largest cities resigned.
Huntington Beach City Councilman Tito Ortiz, who won the seat in 2020 by over 12,000 votes, resigned at the council’s first meeting in June of this year, saying the “hostility and judgement,” from the public changed his mind about taking the job.
Two months later, the city council appointed Rhonda Bolton to serve out the rest of Ortiz’s term, the first Black woman to hold a seat on the dais.
In Anaheim, a set of leaked and vulgar text messages by former council member Jordan Brandman prompted his resignation and, in turn, a move by the City Council majority under Mayor Harry Sidhu to embark on a fraught process of appointing Brandman’s replacement.
That process involved no special, public meetings where candidates could pitch themselves — only one-on-one meetings with council members on their own time leading up to a Sept. 14 regular council meeting where the issue was lumped into other city business.
At that meeting, the council majority under Sidhu voted to select a resort industry ally, Gloria Saha’gun Ma’ae, to fill the seat left vacant by Brandman.
The vote happened just hours after residents — some for the first time — heard candidates speak publicly on how to improve life in the city’s most neglected area of town during a last-minute pitch portion.
The council majority’s move also came under intense scrutiny during the meeting from city watchdogs and even fellow District 2 vacancy candidates who joined in on the criticism, growing increasingly vocal throughout the meeting about what they said was becoming to look like a “sham” proceeding.
The Laguna Hills City Council was also forced to grapple with a vacancy at their last meeting, following Councilman Bill Hunt’s announcement he was moving out of state and leaving behind his seat on September 14.
The council has until November 13 to decide if they will host a special election for the seat or appoint Hunt’s replacement themselves. A special election would cost at least $140,000 according to city staff, and the council is planning to discuss the issue more at their September 28 meeting.
Orange City Councilman Mike Alvarez was also forced to resign in March after winning a third term in office because the city’s term limit rules made him ineligible to continue in office.
Alvarez was replaced by Kathy Tavoularis, a county employee, in April after the city council decided not to go with a special election and instead take applications for the seat.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.