By Ryan Hagen | rhagen@scng.com | The Press-Enterprise
Published: April 21, 2018 at 7:01 am | Updated: April 21, 2018 at 9:09 pm

Riverside City Council members were explicit in their warning when they voted in February to extend then-City Manager John Russo’s contract: If we don’t show strong support, staff members will see us as unsupportive and unstable.

Top staff, serving below their pay grade out of loyalty to Russo and the city’s mission, will flee. And, they said, it will be hard to recruit for positions that make the city run well.

With those dangers in mind — along with the fear of bad publicity over a dispute about the wisdom of the contract and the legality of the veto Mayor Rusty Bailey was threatening to stop it — council members voted 5-2 to extend Russo’s contract until December 2024.

Then the dispute went about as public as it could, with a continuing court battle between Bailey and the city grabbing headlines across Southern California.

Then that same council, without saying what had changed, voted 4-3 Tuesday, April 17, to fire Russo.

Some, including Councilman Andy Melendrez, say the signal sent by firing a top official they nearly all agreed was going a great job just 10 weeks earlier only makes things worse.

“It really speaks to the fickleness of the council,” said Melendrez, who voted in support of Russo both times. “I think when you have a city that’s moving very strongly forward and you lose a city manager, I think it sends up real questions to those that are looking.”

Those who voted to fire Russo say the fears of instability are overblown.

“We’ve got a team here,” said Councilman Chuck Conder, who voted against extending the contract and for firing Russo. “We will continue on and do great things. This is like football teams – you change quarterbacks, the team can still go to the Super Bowl.”
Part of a pattern?

Russo became city manager three years ago, in May 2015. His predecessor, Scott Barber, served about the same tenure — 2011 to December 2014. Before that, Brad Hudson served six years, and George Caravalho served two-and-a-half after his appointment in 2002. Of the four, Russo and Caravalho were fired.

Those tenures aren’t unusually short. Half of city managers serve less than five years in a city, while half serve more, according to one 2014 study, and the California City Managers Foundation cites similar numbers statewide.

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