Thursday night the Santa Clara City Council dismissed City Manager Deanna Santana in a 4-2 vote, with Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Council Member Kathy Watanabe voting “no,” and Council Member Suds Jain absent. The City Manager is an at-will employee, whom the Council can dismiss at any time and without cause.
Santa Clara Assistant City Attorney Sujata Reuter advised against holding the closed session without an outside attorney because the City Attorney reports to the City Manager, so she couldn’t attend the closed session. The outside attorney advising the Council quit a few days before the meeting.
Christopher Jackson, president of Unit 9, argued against Santana’s dismissal as a bad policy decision at this time — one of the few criticisms that didn’t include personal attacks.
“Under the City Manager’s leadership, the City is successfully navigating the challenges created by a global pandemic…continuing to deliver core services, achieve numerous accomplishments and awards,” he said. “Remind yourself of the City’s existing workloads and priorities, ongoing budget shortfalls, staffing shortages…if…Council believes change is warranted, we ask that you do so … with a thoughtful succession plan identified to gracefully transition this critical leadership position.”
Most critics castigated the rest of the Council — the five elected since 2018, four of whom opposed building Levi’s Stadium — as puppets of Jed York.
High Pay, Low Morale Cited in Support of Dismissal
Gillmor partisans usually outnumber her critics at Council meetings, but at this meeting, the tables were turned and speakers supporting the move were the majority.
“It’s about time, said an unnamed speaker. “What has the City Manager done for the City other than spend a lot of money on her cronies? She’s the highest or the second-highest paid in the state …I am happy to see her go.”
“I support the City Council and what they’ve done,” said retired Santa Clara employee Sandy Myers.
“You have employees that are not getting their step increases, not getting raises, that didn’t get hero pay. Her interview to The Mercury News stating the City Council was the reason that …employees were leaving in droves that is not the case,” continued Myers. “The case is the management. The case is the non-recognition of their dedication. We are paying for services that used to be free or very minimal [cost], but we’re paying her and all of her people so much money. It’s a misuse of funds.”
Criticizing “archaic influencers” who “mislead and misdirect” from data showing “mis-leadership,” former candidate for City Council Harbir Bhatia said, “Over the years I have seen our City go into further deficit, cutting our services.”
“There have been continuously poor decisions… divisive, poorly managed business relationships. Creating lawsuits against the Chamber of Commerce, handling the CVRA lawsuit badly,” Bhatia said. “Hiring expensive outside leadership without promoting anybody internally….Like cutting the Visitor’s Bureau $1.5 million — a savings for the short term…[With COVID], we lost all the potential revenue that could have been in our coffers. We went from $2 million in deficit to $21 million to $33 million and $44 million. This is not the right way we want to run our City.”
“I was falsely accused by the City Manager and the City Attorney of doing an improper contract with the Convention Center,” said Ravinder Lal, owner of the UPS Store in the Santa Clara Convention Center. “After it was all said and done, I still got a contract…But I was made to look like I was doing something improper when I really wasn’t, and never received apology.”
Retired Police Chief Mike Sellers spoke of his experience with Santana.
“When… Deanna Santana came, I was looking forward to working closely with her, but …[she] refused to work with me since I was an elected police chief,” said Sellers. “Typically I would meet weekly or monthly with previous city managers. But Deanna refused to meet with me.
“I later found out …she was meeting constantly with the POA [police union] president,” he continued. “The POA [attorney] is Allison Barry Wilkinson, the same attorney that personally represents her [Santana]. So she bargains with Unit 2 and also provides discipline for the officers. I presented it to her that this was a conflict of interest. But she felt differently.”
He concluded, Santana “deteriorated morale” because “long-term employees [have] no succession plan or future promotions.”
“It’s All The 49ers’ Fault”
Critics of the Council’s move provided few arguments in Santana’s favor, instead, attacking council members and what they believe is a conspiracy masterminded by the 49ers to “take over” Santa Clara.
Council mainstay, San José resident Kirk Vartan, launched the first missile.
“The 49er influenced council majority decide to fire the city attorney in the middle of eight active lawsuits against the city from the 49ers,” he said. “[They] harass City staff and create a miserable place to work…They just order staff to do whatever they want, or more realistically, the outcomes from the dozens of meetings they’ve had with the 49ers.”
Gillmor joined the attack on her colleagues.
“I really question the adherence to the City Charter, the City Manager’s employment agreement and the Brown Act,” said Gillmor. “Clearly the council majority has put themselves and the City of Santa Clara in a precarious situation. I’ve been in public office for several decades. No City Council has ever gutted City Hall… put a private interest [49ers] above the public interest.”
“Santa Clara needs a strong City Manager and Deanna Santana provides that,” said Carolyn McAllister. “We are now led by five council members [who] are obligated or beholden to Jed York.”
Santa Clara Cultural Commission Chair, Debra von Huene, questioned how four Council Members could have been assembled so quickly to sign the special meeting request.
“It is patently obvious… that the four of the 49er five signed this document based on direction from the 49ers,” said von Huene.
Opponents threatened recalls.
“What’s next 49er five?” said Debbie. “Oh, I know. You want to take control of our police department by changing the police chief. Another step for Jed and yourself to control Santa Clara… I got news for you guys. You aren’t going to be reelected.”
Former candidate for City Council Bob O’Keefe reiterated this twice.
“These council members… have not even sat in the big chair on the dais in front of the public. If they want to fire the City Manager, make it for cause,” said O’Keefe. “If they don’t, things will happen, legal things such as recalls, and the first person to be recalled, would be the low hanging fruit. I think that would be the one that has less—”
He repeated his remarks after the vote, attacking other speakers, falsely accusing “Herbeer Bertia” [sic] of being “financed by the 49ers” and Sellers of speaking against the City Manager because of “what he’s been told by the 49ers,” adding incorrectly, “He had a vote of no confidence by his police force, and the City Manager took appropriate actions.”*
“We have no City Manager… no city attorney. We have Jed York,” said O’Keefe. “We are going to start a recall against certain City council members and you will know who you are…But we cannot wait till the next election to vote out Hardy and Chahal. Believe me, we will.”
One speaker scorned the conspiracy theories.
“For days and days, and months, you’ve been talking about how the 49ers are funding ‘the five,’” said Laurie. “It’s a joke. Bring your proof and put it in writing because it’s a joke. I …might not know all the City council members well, but I do know that they’re not backed by the [49ers]… That’s the tactic of the 49er ‘sisters’ that brought the [49ers] to Santa Clara…We’re tired of having just a few people run the City.”
Santa Clara Library Trustee Lee Broughman said it didn’t “matter how those 49ers got here. They’re here and they’re obviously putting a lot of undue influence on the City Council.”
Planning Commissioner Nancy Biagini didn’t endorse or oppose the dismissal, saying only that, “infighting on our city council” is “embarrassing. I’m not interested in getting into … all the issues.” Instead, she endorsed the advice of the Assistant City Attorney to “hire outside counsel to advise on this matter.”
*In 2016, longtime POA President Pat Nikolai was running for police chief, the POA threatened to boycott working at Levi’s Stadium, citing Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee. Santana wasn’t hired until October 2017.