The creation of a new high-level Santa Clara planning job that doesn’t appear in the 2021 budget, within days of a $35,000 raise and unannounced title change for a planning manager has some City Hall insiders crying “cronyism.”
At its May 4 meeting the Santa Clara City Council approved a new Assistant Director of Community Development (formerly the Planning Department) at City Manager Deanna Santana’s recommendation. The action wasn’t initially presented for discussion, and was instead put on the consent calendar — items that are approved in a single motion and normally without much discussion.
On April 19, the Assistant Director job was added to the May 4 City Council agenda for approval. This was one day after Planning Manager Reena Brilliot received a $35,000 raise and the title of Assistant to the City Manager but remained assigned to the Planning Department.
There are currently five Assistants to the City Manager positions, one of which was frozen in the May 7 Santa Clara proposed operating budget. Santana says that Brilliot’s title change isn’t filling that frozen position. (The Weekly has requested clarification and we will update this story when we receive it).
At the May 4 meeting Council Member Anthony Becker pulled the item for discussion. “I wanted to understand how we’re being asked to approve a new management position,” Becker said. “From what I understand there was a hiring freeze.”
“Our CD [Community Development] department has been …impacted by the large scale [development] within our community,” Santana told the Council. While the Community Development department has grown by 30 positions, “we just have division managers with no assistant [manager] in the middle,” she said. There are currently two vacant management positions in Community Development.
The Assistant Director position was needed, Santana told The Weekly, given the additional workload from pandemic emergency ordinances and relief programs, new area master plans, implementation of new permitting and records management systems and new housing programs.
Despite the necessity, the job wasn’t included in the 2021-22 proposed budget published on May 7 — almost three weeks after Santana proposed the new position.
Developer fees will fund the new position — salary of $188,462 and $245,000 — not the general fund, Santana told the Council. Three quarters of the Community Development staff is funded from special revenue funds separate from the general fund.
Confusing Pushback About Recruitment
Santana indicated she intended to fill the new job quickly, prompting Becker to ask if the job was going to be filled by open recruitment — the job wasn’t posted as an open position at the time. Santana bristled that it wasn’t a decision for the Council to make or even recommend.
“I’m concerned with council interference in terms of advising and directing on how to fill positions,” she said. “We have a civil service process which is well-known and followed and adhered to within the organization. Under the City Charter I have the appointment …and hiring authority.
“It has not been familiar to me in my near 30 years of experience that a Council gets involved in that or makes those types of motions,” she continued. “Without my having a legal opinion on this, those are the first things that come to mind.”
“I don’t understand why we would not simply state that we would try to be as open as possible in a hiring process and instead we have a lot of pushback on the charter, [on] Councilmanic interference,” said Council Member Kevin Park.
This week Santana told The Weekly that the City is recruiting for the Assistant Director job and has hired a recruiting firm. “The position has been posted on their website as well as the City’s website. Interviews are tentatively scheduled for mid-August,” Santana said.
Because the Assistant Director job wasn’t advertised when it was discussed at the Council meeting, and Santana seemed to be resistant to opening the job up, led some City Hall insiders to suggest that the job was being tailored for Brilliot.
With a Masters in Urban Planning, Brilliot came to Santa Clara from San José in 2018 after working for that city for nine years; a move that boosted her salary from $142,000 to $154,000; a $12,000 increase. She currently heads the City’s planning and code enforcement operations. In San José she was interim Director of Planning and a business development specialist recruiting new businesses to San José.
In 2019, she got a $25,000 raise, bringing her to $183,000 — 8th highest paid planning manager in California in 2019. That year she also received a $9,100 merit increase — bringing her salary to upwards of $191,000, with $81,000 in benefits.
Then in 2021 came the title change to Assistant to the City Manager and the raise that brought Brilliot’s salary to $227,000. This is the top of the salary range for this job and makes her the highest paid Assistant to the City Manager in California (Santa Clara now holds the top three spots in the state for this job). Brilliot’s new job title hasn’t been publicly announced.
All told, the raises added up to $72,000 — 51 percent — in a period of three years.
Santana says that the raises are consistent with the job responsibilities. “Her position was realigned to more closely match the duties that she is performing, as well as assisting the City Manager’s Office with special projects,” Santana told The Weekly.
Brilliot “continues to oversee concurrently all of Planning Manager duties, as well as the additional management duties and special projects,” Santana said. “As a represented employee, her duties should match her classification and compensation, in compliance with pay equity State laws.”
However, the inconsistencies in this history remain — a necessary job that is nonetheless not included in the budget published three weeks later, a seeming about-face about how the job was to be filled, and a job reassignment to the top of the pay grade during a budget crisis.
Data Show Santa Clara Compensation Is Competitive
At the May 7 Council meeting, Santana spent almost as much time lobbying for a high salary for the Assistant Director job as she did for the job itself.
“We have had some problems attracting talent, as development has increased over the last years in the region… we’re trending about a 50 percent vacancy rate…We will be back likely before the end of the year to make corrections to make this [City a] more attractive employer.
Santana has been complaining that Santa Clara’s compensation is “uncompetitive” since she arrived in 2017 with a bevy of her former colleagues — all of whom received hefty increases to come to Santa Clara.
But the pay for the assistant planning/community development director in neighboring cities shows that Santa Clara’s compensation for this job is not only competitive but at the top of the pay scale.
San José’s top paid assistant planning director makes $232,000 with $59,000 in benefits. Mountain View’s Assistant Community Development Director makes $200,000 and $56,000 in benefits. Sunnyvale’s Assistant Community Development Director makes $204,000 with $64,000 in benefits.
Santana herself was the third highest compensated city manager in California last year, surpassed only by two city managers that retired with big lump sum payments.