Riverside – Tension was in the air at last week’s Riverside City Council meeting when council members approved a new contract for City Manager John Russo.
The contract was approved by a majority vote of five to two and the issue initially appeared settled. However, a couple of hours later as the session wound down, Mayor Rusty Bailey derailed the new contract’s momentum when he announced his intent to veto it—an action taken for the first time in nearly twenty-five years.
In a four-page message issued by the mayor later in the week, Bailey justified his veto. The written statement reinforced assertions he made during the council meeting. He wrote, “We do not need to look far to find other cities that have faced huge financial crises as a result of high salaries, large pensions, a lack of financial accountability, and an absence of checks and balances.” He added, “We cannot let our city go down this path.”
In the memo, Bailey appeared to chide Russo for the audacity of requesting an increase as well as added benefits based purely on the rationale that he has ‘done a good job.’ “Didn’t we expect him to do a good job when we hired him?” Bailey challenged.
The sense of urgency for the council to approve a new contract is curious, considering the city’s current financial concerns and the fact that Russo’s current contract does not expire until May 2020.
Bailey noted that over the last two years the council has called upon residents, employees, vendors, and department heads alike “to share in the burden of shoring up the city’s finances.” Voters even approved a one cent sales tax increase to provide for critical public safety services. In addition, just last month the council raised utility rates, and the pending budget is expected to include a number of austerity cuts.
Despite this reality, the Russo contract approved by the council last week and vetoed by the mayor included an increase that would bring his salary to $327,112 this year. When benefits are added, his total compensation package would be $415,988. The new contract also authorizes a three percent per year increase until the contract expires in December 2024. Russo also requested and the council approved a $675,000 loan payable over 15 years for Russo’s home in Riverside.
Councilmembers hinge their authority to grant the new contract based on a section of the city’s charter that reads in part, “the City Manager shall serve at the pleasure of the City Council.”
For his part, the mayor asserts his veto authority based on legal counsel who advised that, because the city’s most recent charter does not explicitly exempt nor place approval of contracts on the list of actions excluded from veto, the mayor maintains he has the authority to veto Russo’s new contract.
The contract’s approval is at a stalemate. Whether the city’s charter gives the mayor authority to leverage such a veto may require judicial intervention to resolve. The Voice will continue to follow this story.