Santa Clara City Attorney Brian Doyle was hired in an unusual way. And, as City Attorney he behaves in ways that are, to say the least, unusual for municipal attorneys. Doyle’s record of rude behavior, partisan conduct and bad legal advice combined with the unorthodox way he was hired beg the question: Why was he hired?
Evidence suggests for political reasons.
When the previous City Attorney, Ren Nosky, resigned in 2017, then-Council Member Teresa O’Neill suggested that Doyle — a retired San Jose employee, Santa Clara resident and longtime personal friend of O’Neill’s — apply for the job. Doyle was then appointed as interim City Attorney and subsequently hired permanently.
O’Neill told the Mercury News at the time, “I know he cares a lot about the city and the issues we are facing ….We would talk about all the various things going on and we’d bounce ideas off each other because of his expertise. He has a lot of integrity and I respect his community involvement.”
That community involvement included Doyle’s open partisanship and support for Mayor Lisa Gillmor’s policies. Doyle’s predecessor tangled with the Mayor about matters of law, terms of contracts the Council had approved, and a threatened California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit.
Doyle by contrast, usually backs Gillmor’s wishes regardless of their legal or practical wisdom, personally attacking those she considers opponents, and going so far as to use his office to intimidate a press critical of her.
Insulting His Employers
Although he’s employed by the Santa Clara City Council, Doyle appears to feel no duty to speak civilly to all Council Members, let alone respectfully.
At the June 12, 2018 City Council meeting he told Council Members Patrick Kolstad and Patricia Mahan he was “ashamed of working for you two” when the pair refused to make an appointment to a vacant Council seat, insisting the voters should choose who filled the seat, not six Council Members.
Doyle has repeatedly sneered at suggestions by Council Member Raj Chahal that the City should come to terms with the 49ers, given that Santa Clara is in business with them and will be for decades.
On March 19, 2019, Doyle told Chahal, “If they [the 49ers] talk to you maybe you can ask them to show up …the ball is in their court. If they want the relationship to improve then start improving it.”
On Dec. 8, 2020, Doyle tried to block a closed session requested by Chahal about the voting rights lawsuit (at the time was scheduled for an appeal hearing), by claiming that Council Members had a conflict of interest and shouldn’t vote on the issue — settling the voting rights lawsuit. — that they’d campaigned on.
At the same meeting Doyle accused Chahal of “playing games” and not being “candid,” and further belittled the Council Members.
After the new Council was seated last December, Doyle expanded his insults to include Council Members Anthony Becker, Sudhanshu Jain and Kevin Park.
Doyle falsely claimed that the new Council Members received campaign contributions from the 49ers, and reinforced his falsehood by saying, “the public has a right to know whether or not you’re giving money [via a settlement] to people who have spent millions on your campaign” and “giving money for no reason.”
The 49ers have no involvement in the CVRA case and made no donations to Council candidates.
“Every lawyer that heard me say that there are people on my council that want to do that [settle a costly voting rights lawsuit] has laughed,” he said. “They just laugh. They just laugh because no client would ever do that … when you still have the opportunity… [in] court.” Santa Clara has since lost the case and appeal and is likely on the hook for more than $5 million.
Multiple Public Personas
Not only does Doyle use his official position in support of Gillmor, but he also shifts back and forth at public meetings from City Attorney to Santa Clara resident and interjects his personal opinions in the course of his official duties.
He spoke as a member of the public on the question of electing the police chief and city clerk — this wasn’t even the committee’s mandate — at a charter review committee meeting in 2017, while he was interim city attorney and legal advisor for the committee.
Doyle spoke as a District 5 resident at the March 9, 2020 Council meeting when Councilmembers Chahal and Karen Hardy voted against a Gillmor-preferred appointment to a vacant Council seat and in favor of an election to fill the seat.
“Council Member Hardy… I think you owe me as a voter the duty of at least considering other candidates,” he said. “I think it is absolutely important that you follow through on your statement that you represent all the people of Santa Clara, not just your own interests. I feel the same is true of you, Council Member Chahal.”
An Eager Warrior for the Mayor
Doyle is an eager warrior in Gillmor’s now four-year-old war on the 49ers, with whom the City has a 30-year business relationship in Levi’s Stadium — one that was energetically sought by Gillmor and Council Member Watanabe back in 2010.
Instead of confining himself to legal counsel, Doyle routinely denigrates the 49ers, accuses them of crimes, and promotes a hostile and adversarial stance that has resulted in an avalanche of litigation — almost 10 lawsuits and arbitration actions. As noted previously he sneers at suggestions that the City try to get along with its business partner.
At an April 13, 2019 Stadium Authority meeting, Doyle repeatedly accused the 49ers of wage theft — despite the fact that the 49ers made good on a failure by a subcontractor to pay prevailing wage.
“The Stadium Authority manager admitted … that he thought paying prevailing wages …meant not going to Home Depot parking lot and picking people up. That’s their understanding of their duties,” Doyle said.
He also said that “the 49ers’ goal” was “to hide what [they’re] spending money on,” and that “we already know that they are self-dealing to some extent, and it sure smells like there’s a whole lot more.”
A Partisan Past and Present
Doyle was a partisan in Santa Clara politics before he was appointed and hasn’t moderated his partisanship in many ways since.
He wrote a 2014 letter to The Weekly disputing an editorial by publisher Miles Barber about Ulistac, saying that Barber “studied at the Vladimir Putin School of Compromise.”
Doyle signed a December 2015 petition demanding the City block the NFL from using the soccer park for Super Bowl 50, even though Santa Clara offered this in its Super Bowl bid. Unregistered political committee Stand Up for Santa Clara, whose membership overlaps that of the youth soccer leagues, organized the petition.
Doyle subsequently emailed [doyle 2016 email re CM] the Council in 2016 that then City Manager’s Julio Fuentes signing authority should be revoked. At the time, there was conflict between Fuentes and Gillmor’s Council faction — O’Neill, Debi Davis, Kathy Watanabe — about meeting Santa Clara’s contractual obligations.
In 2015 Doyle sent the Council a list of “guiding principles” for the soccer park [soccer park doyle email 5-2015] that were subsequently presented to Council by a consortium of the Santa Clara Youth Soccer League (SCYSL), Santa Clara Sporting Club and Stand Up. The Parks & Recreation Commission was poised to adopt the proposed rules, but no action was taken.
Doyle later got into the fray about 2020’s Measure C, which proposed replacing Santa Clara’s six court-ordered single-member Council districts with three multi-member districts.
On social media Doyle took “great offense” to someone who said that Measure C would expose the City to another costly lawsuit — the plaintiffs in the 2017 case promised as much — and he called the measure’s opponents “naïve.”
“Do you think that these billionaires [the 49ers] care about the rights of the residents of Santa Clara?” Doyle wrote, referring to the 49ers’ donation to a ‘No on C’ PAC whose sponsors included former Congressman Mike Honda.
Doyle has tried to use his City office to intimidate this newspaper. In 2019, he demanded that The Weekly turn over its list of subscribers and subscriber/advertisers, their addresses, what they pay and when they pay it. He also wanted to know where the paper is printed and the dates it was printed for the last three years (every Wednesday).
The reason for this, he said, was “To ensure that Santa Clara taxpayer’s expenditures are in compliance with … statutory requirements for ‘a newspaper of general circulation.’”
The Weekly is adjudicated by the County of Santa Clara and meets the legal requirements for a newspaper of general circulation.
False claims that The Weekly doesn’t publish regularly have been made by a fired Weekly employee-turned- blogger Robert Haugh, who is tightly connected to Gillmor and Former Council Member O’Neill — he was so close to Gillmor that she participated one of his wrestling shows.*
Doyle was a partisan when he worked for San José, publishing a 2011 editorial in the Mercury News attacking Mayor Chuck Reed’s — his employer’s — pension reform efforts and attacking San José leadership in social media posts.
Defending His Opinion, Not Santa Clara in CVRA Lawsuit
Doyle architected the City’s fight against the CVRA lawsuit that will likely cost Santa Clara upward of $5 million — the City lost in both the trial court and on appeal. He hired a defense counsel inexperienced in CVRA litigation, Steve Churchwell, who was a business partner of Gillmor’s political advisor and Related Companies lobbyist Jude Barry.
He repeatedly advised that the lawsuit had “no merit,” the City’s case was “strong,” and never corrected erroneous statements that multi-member election districts aren’t subject to the CVRA (they are).
Doyle even told the judge in the case that he didn’t “necessarily agree” with the judge and that Doyle’s duty was “to uphold the laws of California including appellate court decisions” that affirmed the CVRA’s application to charter cities.
Some might describe his conduct in the case as reaching the level of legal malpractice.
Doyle filed Santa Clara’s appeal before the Council approved the action to do so, saying he was acting on the Council’s stated intentions. Last year, he concealed from the newly elected City Council a settlement offer he received from the plaintiffs, letting the Council believe there were no time-sensitive developments when in fact he received the offer four days earlier, and the offer was set to expire the following day.
Doyle and Churchwell were reportedly ready to appeal to the California Supreme Court, but couldn’t get a majority of the Council to endorse the action, which he reluctantly acknowledged at the Feb. 23 Council meeting after Council Member Kevin Park publicly pushed for Doyle to make a statement.
Some ask why, after leading Santa Clara down such a financially disastrous road, does Doyle still has a job?
One reason is that Doyle’s contract stipulates that he can’t be fired within 90 days of new members being seated on the Council. While this is common in city manager contracts, it’s unusual in city attorney contracts according to municipal legal experts. [doyle employment contract 90 days].
The Council may have decided that it’s not worth the effort to fire Doyle before his 90 days expire on March 8.
But come that date, Santa Clara City Council faces a decision about four years of politicization in the City Attorney’s office.
For information about standards of conduct for attorneys in general and municipal attorneys specifically, visit California Bar Association Rules of Professional Conduct (www.calbar.ca.gov) and League of California Cities Ethical Principles for City Attorneys (www.cacities.org).
* Haugh denies that Gillmor ever participated in his wrestling events. However, The Weekly editor remembers that Haugh bragged at the office about Gillmor’s participation, and others attending the show recall seeing her there.