City managers across Orange County have the power to approve some contracts without public input.
These contracts, which in some cities can reach $200,000, never appear in front of the city council. Instead, they are independently approved by the city manager.
Each city has a different threshold for the city manager’s signing authority, which creates a maximum dollar limit for contracts to be signed off on without council approval.
This week, the Buena Park City Council is slated to nearly triple the city manager’s threshold to approve these contracts.
Currently, Buena Park City Manager Aaron France can only approve contracts that total up to $30,000 on his authority.
That signing authority could go to $80,000 if the council votes to allow this change at the Feb. 14 meeting.
Contracts with a dollar amount above the threshold must still require a city council vote.
Buena Park’s signing authority amount hasn’t changed since 2004, and council members said it’s time to adjust the number to match inflation and the thresholds of surrounding cities.
The item was brought to the council’s Jan. 10 agenda by Councilmember Susan Sonne, who emphasized that the city manager should have increased power to approve contracts regarding routine matters.
“I wanted to have this out of concern for the number of items that we end up having to deal with on our agenda each meeting and how much time it takes staff to produce the report,” Sonne said at the meeting. “I have the utmost trust in the way (the city manager is) handling these things, so I would like to see fewer things that are more routine.”
In smaller neighboring cities like Brea and Cypress, these city managers both have a threshold of $25,000.
Villa Park has a threshold of $20,000, one of the lowest in the county, based on a review by Voice of OC.
Bigger cities have higher signing authorities for their city managers.
In Newport Beach, the city manager can sign contracts up to $120,000 without council approval.
In Anaheim, a previous city council increased the threshold from $50,000 to $200,000 in 2021 — one of the highest in the county currently.
Some cities break up the limit for different types of contracts.
The threshold for Santa Ana’s city manager is $250,000 for public works and $50,000 for non-public works. In Cypress, the limit is $55,000 for capital improvement projects and $25,000 for everything else.
While some cities haven’t revisited their signing authority in decades, others have been taking a look at the amount more recently.
In September 2022, the Westminster City Council increased the city manager’s signing authority threshold from $50,000 to $100,000.
During Buena Park’s discussion, Councilmember Connor Traut explained the importance of having a reasonable signing authority threshold to protect the city’s interests before agreeing it should be increased.
“Rules like this protect from the worst-case scenario,” Traut said. “Elections have consequences and can bring in a horrible city manager, a horrible new council, and so (this rule is) preparing for that and making sure there are rules and protections in place. For raising this, I really need to make sure there’s justification.”
Sonne said increasing the city manager’s signing threshold a substantial amount would help create efficiency in staff’s handling of city matters since they would no longer need to create as many staff reports for the council agenda.
“I’d like to see staff time used more efficiently and be able to get things done more quickly by not having to bring it to council and allowing us to address other things on our council agenda rather than these routine things that we have complete trust in our staff for,” Sonne said.
France said that all contracts that he believes require further review will be presented to the city council for consideration.
“No matter what the limit is, if your city manager feels a little uncomfortable about a situation, whether it’s below my threshold or not, I will certainly bring it back for concurrence because I would never do anything where I felt a little bit uneasy about approving something,” France said at the Jan. 10 meeting.
Buena Park also posts all of its current labor contracts on the city website. The item will return to the council’s agenda for final approval Feb. 14.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
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