“It is an extraordinary honor to be selected to serve in this position in a city known across America for its foresight, commitment to public safety, and adherence to financial stability,” said Russo said in a statement. “Consistent with Irvine’s values, I am committed to open and transparent decision-making, listening to all stakeholders (citizens, businesses, universities, the public sector, and faith communities) with an open mind, and equally committed to decisive action and a long-term approach to policy. Process matters. Results matter more.”
Russo most recently was city manager of Riverside. Prior to that position he was a city councilman and city attorney in Oakland, and served four years as city manager for the city of Alameda. He graduated with honors in economics and political science from Yale University, and earned his law degree from New York University School of Law. The Brooklyn native, 59, was a legal aid attorney in St. Louis before moving to Oakland in 1987, where he was president of Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation, treasurer of the East Bay League of Conservation Voters, and pro bono attorney for neighborhood associations and nonprofits. In 2002, Russo served as League of California Cities president; he also was a board member for the National League of Cities.
“Russo’s combination of experience at three California cities gives him a unique perspective as he prepares to lead Irvine in implementing the vision at the direction of its city council,” noted a statement released by the city.
“As a city council, we went through a lengthy recruitment process with a great result,” said Mayor Don Wagner. “John Russo is the city manager we need to help move us forward on many fronts – some naturally occurring, some still to develop, and nearly all with unique challenges that face a robust city such as Irvine. Among our priority goals, this city council will turn to him to forge traffic improvement initiatives; support public safety and our schools; for the opening of large sections of the Orange County Great Park; and for the continued high service to our community.”
Russo was named Riverside city manager in May 2015. His departure from the Inland Empire city was contentious. In February 2018, the city council in Riverside voted 5-2 to extend Russo’s contract until December 2024. Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey tried to veto the contract, resulting in a lawsuit over whether the mayor had that veto power or not. In April, the Riverside council “voted 4-3 to terminate the man they had said did an excellent job,” according to a story by Ryan Hagen in the Press-Enterprise newspaper.
Russo’s three-year tenure in Riverside apparently isn’t unusual for the city, according to reports by Hagen and others. The three previous city managers there served three, six, and less than three years.
Unlike Riverside, Irvine has a history of stability at the city manager position. Sean Joyce served nearly 13 years before retiring this past February. William Woollett Jr., Irvine’s first city manager, served some 17 years, from 1972-1989. Woollett was succeeded as city manager by Paul Brady (1990-1999) and Allison Hart (1999-2005).
Russo is “a forward-thinking manager who helped shore up the city’s financial position and brought more openness to city government,” according to Riverside City Councilman Mike Gardner, who was quoted in the OC Register.
Russo’s plans in Irvine include publishing meeting agendas 12 days ahead so the public and the city council have more time to read and analyze them, and he hopes to move Irvine to a two-year budget cycle.
Following Russo’s move to the leadership position in Irvine, Riverside named former assistant city manager Al Zelinka as its city manager. During the controversy in Riverside, there were predictions that key members of Russo’s team, namely well-regarded assistant city managers Alex Nguyen and Marianna Marysheva, would follow him out of the city. Those predictions proved prescient, as Nguyen was appointed city manager of Oxnard in June, while Marysheva has joined Russo in Irvine as assistant city manager.
“Irvine is fortunate to be able to retain Ms. Marysheva,” said Russo. “She has a great deal of experience in many areas of city governance, but she is exceptionally skilled in municipal finance. Her commitment to fiscal discipline is backed up by very strong problem-solving skills, and she is adept at finding long-term solutions in the face of competing priorities.
Meanwhile, the Newport Beach city council hired Grace Leung to be its city manager. Leung has been an assistant city manager in Irvine, and served as acting city manager for several months following the retirement of Sean Joyce. Newport Beach Councilman Kevin Muldoon said Leung was highly recommended by Irvine Mayor Don Wagner, according to reports. Leung will replace Dave Kiff as city manager in Newport Beach. Kiff’s departure from his city position was controversial, as Russo’s was from Riverside.
Interestingly, one of the finalists for the Newport Beach job was reported to be Shawn Nelson, who is termed-out of his position as Orange County supervisor. While a supervisor, Nelson strongly promoted the county’s proposed project on 100 acres of land adjacent to the Orange County Great Park that would create up to one million square feet of office space, 2,100 homes, 200,000 square feet of retail space, and a 242-room hotel.
The Irvine city council voted unanimously to sue the county over the development project. As for Nelson, the soon-to-be-former supervisor came in fifth in the June 2018 primary election for the 39th Congressional District, with 6.8 percent of the vote.