What’s Happening at Santa Clara City Hall?

San Jose Spotlight

by Kate Bradshaw

Santa Clara has no city manager or city attorney after both were fired this year by a councilmember majority. Now one is looking to sue and another is getting a massive severance to not sue.

With the council majority cleaning house at City Hall and ousting two top administrators and allies of Mayor Lisa Gillmor, what does this mean for the city’s future? How are residents feeling about this uncertainty and the shakeup—especially as Santa Clara faces unprecedented growth and a consequential election?

“There’s nobody in charge—that sounds scary,” said resident Raymond Velasquez outside City Hall on Friday. He’s lived in Santa Clara for about 15 years. “How do you run (the city)?”

The city of Santa Clara has been without a city attorney—a public official who advises and represents the city in legal matters—since the City Council voted 5-2 last September to fire former City Attorney Brian Doyle without explaining why. Gillmor and Councilmember Kathy Watanabe voted against it.

The city last year launched an investigation into alleged misconduct by Doyle but refused to say how much the probe will cost, when it would be done or whether it would be released. They referred those questions and a records request from San José Spotlight to an outside law firm, which shut it down.

Doyle had become entangled in a high-profile fight with the San Francisco 49ers, which call Santa Clara home, for years. Last April the 49ers refused to meet with him after a tense exchange in which he said the team wanted him to “sleep with the fishes” and questioned the “thugs” team officials work for.

Doyle confirmed he has filed documents intending to sue the city for firing him.

The turmoil didn’t stop there. Just five months later, the council voted to fire City Manager Deanna Santana from her role. Gillmor and Watanabe again opposed.

“When the action originally occurred, I called it reckless, which I still believe,” Alison Berry Wilkinson, a lawyer representing Santana, told San José Spotlight. “They are missing top leaders that are essential to serving the interests of the community.”

Most cities, the attorney added, are more thoughtful in succession planning. But not Santa Clara.

“This is basically unprecedented in California, where you have a city with no acting city attorney and now a month of no active city manager,” Doyle told San José Spotlight. “It’s incredibly reckless of the current council to have done that.”

Gillmor announced March 22 that Santana had chosen to take a severance agreement. The severance terms required her to agree not to sue the city.

The severance agreement will provide Santana with 12 months of compensation and benefits, which as of 2020 totaled about $765,000. Public records show she had the highest regular pay, not counting benefits, of all California city managers. With benefits, she’s the third-highest compensated city manager in the state.

Santana also can’t disparage the city or share confidential information.

The City Council has not yet named an interim city manager, but may do so at its upcoming April 5 meeting. The council could rehire former city manager Rajeev Batra as interim city manager, and approve spending up to $300,000 for interim city attorney services with the law firm Lozano Smith LLP. They could also forge a contract with executive search firm Bob Murray & Associates to recruit a permanent city manager.

“We are working diligently to have very good interim (appointees) for both of those positions. That will happen very, very soon,” Councilmember Karen Hardy told San José Spotlight.

‘Respect and trust’
Santa Clara Planning Commissioner Nancy Biagini watched the situation in her city unfold—and she is worried. “What concerns me… is that for the first time I can ever remember, we’re operating without a city attorney or a city manager at a time when Santa Clara’s a pretty busy town,” she said. “We’ve got Silicon Valley Power, a stadium, and we’ve got a city, and I don’t know that there’s another city in the Bay Area that has all of those elements.”

Biagini hopes the infighting on the council—which has been simmering for decades—comes to an end. Right now, there are two factions on the Santa Clara City Council—Gillmor and Watanabe against the other side, Councilmembers Suds Jain, Raj Chahal, Kevin Park, Anthony Becker and Hardy. Gillmor, who once enjoyed holding the power with a council majority, lost it in 2020 when three new councilmembers were elected and longtime ally Teresa O’Neill was ousted.

“I wish the City Council would watch us (the Planning Commission), because we deal with each other with respect and trust,” Biagini added.
Without a city attorney, assistant city attorney Sujata Reuter warned councilmembers not to go into the closed session to discuss Santana’s employment the day they fired her.

After Santana began her leave, the council asked Hardy to find an attorney to negotiate Santana’s exit and help them appoint an interim city manager.

Santana and the city have signed severance agreements—which include non-disparagement clauses on both sides—but they still have some details to work out, Hardy said.

To lead the charge, Hardy said she chose attorney Gary Baum, former Palo Alto city attorney.
“He’s very good, has a spotless reputation and he’s been very helpful,” she said.

City Work Continues
Despite the extraordinary shakeup at Santa Clara City Hall, some say the city’s operations haven’t been impacted.
Hardy said residents won’t notice a difference.

Resident Tim Hoang said on Friday he had no idea about the vacancies. The city operates pretty quietly and is “not super transparent,” he said.
“It has been this way for a long time,” he said.

He added he was more concerned about the city using its budget “for something that helps people in real time” than the leadership turnover.
Resident Yuvraj Dhillon said the only reason he knew about the turmoil in City Hall is because his mom works for a neighboring city.
“It’s definitely a big concern,” he said. “Those positions should be filled.”

Christian D. Malesic, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Central Chamber of Commerce, said the shakeup will not affect the city’s economic development landscape because projects have continued to move forward quickly.

“Things are moving forward quickly in a positive light if you’re pro-development, which obviously, we are,” he said.

The local business community’s concerns have more to do with overall uncertainty at City Hall, he said.

“There are concerns,” he said, “and obviously the longer it goes, the bigger those concerns will grow.”