Santa Clara City Manager Deanna Santana has hired a lawyer to press her claim that the City Council cannot deny her a 4.5 percent (roughly $20,000) cost of living adjustment (COLA) that was agreed to under the City’s Bargaining Unit 9, Unclassified Management.
This follows a discussion at the Dec. 7 Council meeting about whether or not the City Manager was automatically entitled to the same contract terms as Unit 9. Santana is the City’s chief labor negotiator. The City Council is able to approve or deny proposed contracts but it cannot change the final terms agreed on.
On Dec. 13, the Council received a letter from Santana’s attorney, Marin County-based Alison Berry Wilkinson, demanding that Santana receive the 4.5 percent COLA that was agreed upon for Unit 9.
Santa Clara historically has linked City Manager pay with that of Unit 9, and that was clearly specified in Santana’s contract.* The COLA is separate from merit increases, which are at the discretion of the Council.
Saying that, “the Council may not fully comprehend the obligations under the [employment] Agreement,” Berry Wilkinson writes, “The language is mandatory…[and] leaves no discretion to the Council once it approves the Unit 9 COLA. Any failure to do so would constitute a breach of contract.”
To anyone’s knowledge, the City Council has never refused to grant a City Manager the same COLAs as other unclassified management.
In her five-page letter, Berry Wilkinson elaborated at length on the laurels garnered by Santana throughout her career in San Jose, Oakland, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara. The attorney also included a lengthy discussion of “insults” that the City Manager believes she has received from City council members, an opinion that the Council should have been “more thoughtful” in firing former City Attorney Brian Doyle and a demand for an apology.
Santana is an at-will employee, but if her severance is “involuntary,” she will receive nine months salary and health insurance benefits.
The City Manager isn’t the only current or former Santa Clara executive lawyering up. Fired City Attorney Doyle has also hired an attorney, Oakland-based Tom Stout.
City Manager Pay – A Sore Issue Since 2017
Santana’s salary has been contentious since she was hired in late 2017. Several council members objected to it at the time but were outvoted. The same objections were raised when she received a $30,000 retroactive COLA within six months of being hired in Santa Clara.
In 2020 Santana was the most highly compensated city manager in California, with the exception of two city managers that retired that year (source: PublicPay.ca.gov). When she came to Santa Clara in 2017 from Sunnyvale, she garnered a $220,457 raise. Prior to her tenure, Santa Clara ranked 15th in city manager pay (2015).
During the last economic downturn (2008-2009) City Manager Jennifer Sparacino took a voluntary 10 percent pay. With COVID ravaging municipal revenues, Palo Alto’s city manager took a 20 percent ($71,000) pay cut.
Santana, however, took no pay cut when COVID decimated City revenues, but agreed, along with Unit 9, to forego COLAs in 2020 and 2021.
Santana’s compensation, it has been argued by previous Councils, is justified by the magnitude of responsibility she bears. Unlike most city managers, Santa Clara’s city manager must also manage a major sports venue, convention center and an electric utility.
However, Sacramento also has a municipal electric company, sports venues and convention centers — plus the state government — and that city’s manager receives a total compensation package is $445,252.
*”Although the position of City Manager is not in Unit 9,” says Santana’s contract, “Employee shall be subject to all cost of living adjustments to salary and benefits for… Unit 9.”
Formerly, the Police Chief’s COLAs were set by the same policy until Mayor Lisa Gillmor, former City Attorney Doyle ad Santana decided it was improper because the police chief is an elected, not appointed, official. Santana blamed the prior policy on HR’s “weak internal controls,” “inappropriate administrative actions,” and “mismanagement of the payroll system.”