The full investigative summary into what happened behind closed doors at the Aug. 30, 2022 closed session of the Santa Clara City Council is now public. On Dec. 12, 2023, the City Council voted to release the executive summary that was completed more than a year ago. Prior to that, only the investigator’s final findings were available to the public, not the entire summary of the investigation.
Perceived “Threat” to Gillmor
The 12-page report investigates accusations made by Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Council Member Kathy Watanabe, who said that behind closed doors, Council Member Anthony Becker was “hostile,” “bullying” and “unprofessional.” They said Becker was “aggressive, verbally attacking” and “disrespectful.” Gillmor went further to say she was “threatened” by Becker.
The investigator found that Becker’s behavior in closed and open sessions was not “hostile,” “bullying” or “unprofessional.” While the investigator did conclude that Becker said, “eff off,” the investigator said the “finding is mitigated by other factors.”
Becker’s “threat” against Gillmor, according to the investigator, was along the lines of “I better not be reading about this in the [San Francisco] Chronicle tomorrow from you leaking this. And if we do, we’ll know it’s you.”
Residents did, in fact, read about the incident in the Chronicle the next day. Gillmor was quoted by the Chronicle reporter as saying she called the police because she wanted to “protect myself.” Public records show that Gillmor directly called Police Chief Pat Nikolai on his cell phone and then police dispatch when Nikolai did not pick up.
The investigator says Becker made accusatory statements during the open session but that the statements “did not rise to the level of ‘hostile,’ ‘bullying’ or ‘unprofessional’ conduct.” The investigator felt that Becker’s comments were in response to comments made by Gillmor that insinuated improper conduct by Becker and other Council members.
In the final findings about the perceived “threat,” the investigator wrote, “Although Becker undisputedly told Gillmor, ‘I better not be reading about this in the Chronicle tomorrow from you leaking this. And if we do, we’ll know it’s you,’ I do not find Becker thereby ‘threatened’ Gillmor. First, Becker credibly asserted he made this comment in a ‘joking’ manner. Second, none of the witnesses perceived Becker’s comment to be a ‘threat.’ Third, Gillmor and Watanabe themselves stated they did not feel physically threatened by Becker.”
Interim City Manager, Interim City Attorneys Not at Fault
In Gillmor and Watanabe’s complaint, the pair also accused interim City Manager Rajeev Batra and interim city attorneys Steven Ngo and James Sanchez (the latter attended the meeting remotely) of failing to “step in” during the incident.
Watanabe believed that Ngo, who she considered the “parliamentarian of the closed session,” should have addressed Becker’s conduct. Gillmor told the investigator that Batra should have acted.
“I feel like the City Manager’s supposed to maintain a safe workspace for everyone, including Council members,” Gillmor is quoted as saying.
Watanabe was less sure of Batra’s role, according to the report.
“Instead, she opined it was the role of the mayor to ‘guide the conversation,’” wrote the investigator.
Batra told the investigator that the mayor reads a “behavioral standards sheet” before every Council meeting and one of the items on the sheet states that “The mayor’s direction in matters of process and decorum should be followed.”
Further, Batra said that professionally, it is usually the mayor who serves as chair of a meeting and the mayor who “control[s] the behavior,” including “whether [to] let people speak out profanities loud[ly].”
Batra continued by saying if it had gone beyond verbal to physical, then he would have stepped in somehow.
“She’s a seasoned mayor. She’s run hundreds of these meetings, and she’s seen bad behavior from the general public in the meetings. She has taken action on that, so that’s why I personally defer to her,” Batra told the investigator.
Ngo similarly believed that the mayor was more than capable of taking care of herself.
“I’ve seen [Gillmor] handle or not be bothered by […] that type of exchange,” Ngo told the investigator. “As [Becker] was speaking, before Watanabe said whatever she said and walked out, nothing about that stood out to me as unusual to the degree that I had to assert myself because the mayor couldn’t manage it. […] Gillmor controls meetings very well. […] I’ve never seen her have problems telling someone, ‘Stop. Cut it out. Let’s move on. Stop asking questions. Can you move on, please? We’re done here.’ […] She just never struck me…I did not form the opinion that she was vulnerable to that type of interaction.”
Ngo also told the investigator that the exchange happened quickly, and Gillmor walked out of the closed session less than a minute after Watanabe left.
Impartial Third-Party Investigation
The City hired the law firm of Van Dermyden Makus to complete the investigation. It is a San Diego-based firm that was originally contracted by Santa Clara when former City Manager Deanna Santana was in charge.