Editor’s note: This story was reported by the Beacon Project, a student journalism initiative supported by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. It is independent of the university’s administration.

As one of the highest paid city managers in California, Tom DeSantis has drawn criticism from Moreno Valley residents for the circumstances surrounding his retirement last year.

These complaints include allegations of closed-door dealings and raise questions about the money paid out to DeSantis when he left the job under the label of “retirement” last December. DeSantis made $401,000 in 2019, according to documents obtained by the Beacon Project via the California Public Records Act. He remained on the city’s payroll this year, receiving more than $600,000 in payments, even though he no longer works for the city of Moreno Valley, in northwestern Riverside County.

DeSantis is not the first Moreno Valley city manager to receive a big payout upon leaving the position. The city paid his predecessor, Michelle Dawson, $590,000 in 2018, thanks to a clause in her contract that granted her a full additional year of pay if she were terminated without cause. Dawson had been in the job for four years, after being promoted from assistant city manager when her boss, Henry Garcia, resigned during a corruption probe. Garcia had been one of the highest paid city employees in California in 2013.

DeSantis declined a request from the Beacon Project for an interview, but Charles Duggan, city manager of neighboring Redlands, said the job duties are similar to those of a corporate CEO, with transparency and accountability being very important for the position.

“A good city manager should serve as a bridge between the city council and local departments,” he said.

‘WE WISH HIM THE BEST’

DeSantis was a public servant for almost 30 years. He became the city manager of Moreno Valley in December 2017, after Dawson was terminated. He had been Dawson’s assistant city manager since May 2013. Prior to joining Moreno Valley, he was the assistant city manager in Riverside for five years. He resigned from that position in 2010, following revelations that he had purchased a police gun illegally and driven a car with untraceable license plates.

Moreno Valley isn’t the kind of city you’d expect to have such a surplus of cash. With an estimated population of 213,000 and a median household income of $63,500, according to the United States Census Bureau, almost 16% of its residents live below the poverty line.

The terms of DeSantis' contract listed his salary as $287,000 per year, with the stipulation that he would be paid “a lump sum cash payment equal to 12 months of Salary and benefits” in the event he were terminated “without cause.” If he were to quit instead of being terminated, he would be paid for 45 days, in addition to any accrued vacation or sick time.

DeSantis' base salary falls within the range typical for city managers and administrators in California. The city manager of Redlands, which has a population of 71,500, makes $240,000, according to public records, while the city administrative officer of Los Angeles, population 4 million, makes $306,500. But the question on the minds of Moreno Valley activists is why DeSantis was still kept on the payroll if he quit.

On Dec. 10, DeSantis, who is now 57, sent out an email to city employees stating that the Moreno Valley City Council had accepted his resignation. Although the news may have seemed sudden, he wrote, it followed previous conversations with the mayor about his retirement.

“Even when he became the city manager at the beginning, he had been considering retirement,” Moreno Valley Mayor Yxstian Gutierrez said the following day. “We wish him the best. I think he did a good job.”

After accepting DeSants’s retirement, the city council appointed a new interim city manager, Mike Lee, who had been serving as the economic development director.

On DeSantis' LinkedIn page, he now lists himself as a retired city manager, with his term ending in December 2019.

With DeSantis retiring instead of being terminated, it would seem that he wouldn’t have been eligible for any additional payout beyond 45 days of salary and accrued time off as an employee who left the job voluntarily. Nevertheless, his settlement agreement, dated December 10, 2019 and obtained by the Beacon Project through the California Public Records Act, said he would be separated from employment with the city on July 24, 2020. In addition, the agreement granted him an additional four months of salary and benefits, “pursuant to Paragraph 4.2 of Employee’s employment contract,” the same paragraph that granted a full extra year of pay if terminated without cause.

Somehow this all added up to DeSantis being paid more than $400,000 in 2019 and more than $600,000 in 2020, even though he announced his retirement in December.

‘NEEDS TO BE AFFIRMED IN A PUBLIC VOTE’

So, was DeSantis fired, or did he quit? The difference is more than semantics. Some Moreno Valley residents have done the math and decided it looks like DeSantis is being paid out as if he were terminated, even though he and the city claimed he retired.

“When you retire, that’s it,” said lifelong Moreno Valley resident Debra Craig. “You get nothing, right?”

On Feb. 11 of this year, Craig filed a lawsuit in Riverside Superior Court against DeSantis and the city, alleging “a gift of public funds” that was in violation of the law.

“The problem is that Tom never initiated a negotiation with the city so there’s no reason for a settlement agreement,” said Craig’s attorney, Michael Geller.

Craig’s lawsuit asks for the invalidation of the settlement deal between DeSantis and the city because it was never brought to a public vote in a council meeting. The deal was signed by DeSantis, Mayor Gutierrez and City Attorney Martin Koczanowicz.

“The terms of a settlement deal have to be voted on by the entire governing body because ultimately, the decision needs to be affirmed in a public vote,” said Geller. He told the Beacon Project that even though the city council might have discussed the deal in a closed session, it was still illegal to pass it.

The lawsuit references the Ralph M. Brown Act, which was passed by the California legislature in 1953 and requires local government business to be conducted in the open. “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know,” reads the act’s introduction.

DeSantis said in an email to the Beacon Project that he “must respectfully decline your request to discuss matters involving the City of Moreno Valley.”

Koczanowicz, who was removed as city attorney earlier this year, said he had no comment on DeSantis' retirement. Thanks to his own settlement deal, Koczanowicz will be receiving his $254,000 a year salary through November. It’s unclear where the payouts to Koczanowicz and DeSantis fit into the city’s overall budget, but taxpayers are footing the bill somehow.

Mayor Gutierrez did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Neither did councilman David Marquez, councilwoman Victoria Baca or city manager Mike Lee.

Councilman Ulises Cabrera said in an email that he could not comment on a personnel matter that was discussed in a closed session.

Councilwoman Carla Thorton appeared to hang up the phone when asked about DeSantis' retirement.

‘A NEWS DESERT’

Jason Hunter, a longtime community activist in Riverside County, is not even sure that members of the city council are aware of DeSantis' settlement agreement.

“Most of the council members didn’t realize that he’s gonna be on the payroll for the next 12 months,” he said. “The deal was only between the mayor and Tom, and the city attorney.”

Hunter found the settlement agreement by filing public record requests with the city. He said most Moreno Valley residents have little interest in local politics.

“The place has always been a news desert,” he said, referring to a situation that allows local government to operate with minimal accountability.

The Press-Enterprise has been the primary newspaper in Riverside and San Bernardino counties for many years. Part of the Southern California News Group, the paper has undergone major layoffs and budget cuts over the past decade and is no longer able to conduct long-term investigations into local politics.

“We have lost a bunch of people and there’s a gap that was created in our coverage of cities around Riverside County,” said Beau Yarbrough, a staff writer at SCNG who covers politics in Moreno Valley and neighboring cities. “Nobody would disagree that we aren’t giving the local coverage we should do.”

In this news desert, local residents have started up their own websites and Facebook groups and conducted their own investigations into the dealings of their elected officials. Their findings are often fueled by strong emotions.

Lindsay Robinson is a member of the Facebook group Moreno Valley’s Politics Matter, which has been active in monitoring city government. She’s opposed to various projects being put forward by the city, including the World Logistics Center, a massive warehouse complex that would take up about 10% of the land in Moreno Valley.

When reached for comment, she told the Beacon Project: “The corruption here goes back way before Tom DeSantis.”

Chandler France contributed to this story.

Correction made Sept. 30, 2020 at 3:44 p.m.: A previous version of this story misspelled Michael Geller’s name. Annenberg Media apologizes for this error.