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Situational Ethics Or Ethics for Hire?

Yesterday, Tom Shanks burst into the spotlight with a Mercury News broadside attacking the ethics of Santa Clara City Council Members not named Lisa Gillmor or Kathy Watanabe.

Mr. Shanks was a paid consultant to the City of Santa Clara until 2015, during which time we do not recall him customarily finding that the conduct of the people paying him was actually unethical. If anyone can enlighten us otherwise, we would welcome that information.

Since he left the City’s accounts payable register, he has not been heard from on the subject of the conduct of Santa Clara’s elected officials. Until now. We don’t presume to know, and won’t speculate on, his motives.


However, one thing requires no speculation: He emerged like a cyclic cicada from a seven-year cocoon of indifference about Santa Clara politics 60 days from an election in which four-decade politico Lisa Gillmor finds herself facing a competitive election for the first time in 30 years.

As we are hearing so much these days, the U.S. Justice Department refrains from public comment and indictments of candidates 60 days before elections. This is an example that Mr. Shanks should consider in the interest of his reputation as an impartial judge of public ethics.

However, now that Mr. Shanks has inserted himself into Santa Clara politics, The Weekly welcomes his opinion on other public issues, some of which occurred while Shanks was being paid by the City.

Let’s start with the election of 2004. Was it ethical for the Gillmor family to pass out envelopes containing more than $99 in cash to city council candidates? It was assuredly illegal.

In 2010, Lisa Gillmor spent $5 million of Jed York’s money to pass Measure J and build Levi’s Stadium. As Mr. Shanks now thinks such independent expenditure spending by the 49ers is unethical, was it unethical in 2010? Did he write a Mercury News editorial about it in 2010?

In 2016, the Santa Clara police union PAC became a clearing house for developer money. This money was spent in the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections on push polls and vicious and libelous campaign mailers, including the one below. Is this kind of “gray money” operation ethical?

These mailers used an official-looking and misleading “seal of the mayor of Santa Clara.” Was that unethical? How do these libelous mailers fit into the picture of public ethics? Was it ethical for the police chief to put his personal endorsement on the slanderous mailers? Does electing allies justify any libel no matter how scurrilous?

Then there’s voting rights. What were the ethics of the Santa Clara City Council willfully preserving a political system that kept an all-white city council in power in a 60% minority city? Is structural racism at work here? Mr. Shanks was on the City’s gravy train in 2011. We don’t recall him having anything to say about disenfranchising 60% of the City’s residents.

Further, what were the ethics of wasting $6 million in taxpayers’ money — one-third of the current deficit — not only fighting the lawsuit but appealing it as well on an argument about the meaning of “usually”?

Another ethical question comes out of the fight for fair representation in Santa Clara: What are the ethics of wasting over half a million dollars on losing ballot measures to undo the six council election districts ordered by the judge in the CVRA lawsuit?

Here’s a doozy of an ethical question that we don’t recall Mr. Shanks opining about. What are the ethics — and civic transparency — of fired city attorney Brian Doyle concealing a settlement offer from the city council that would have settled the voting rights lawsuit for $2 million less than the City ended up paying after the appeals court found in favor of the plaintiff? We know that the California Bar takes a dim view of this kind of conduct.

Finally, what were the ethics of the million-dollar payday for the City’s outside attorney in the CVRA case — a business crony of the Mayor’s political advisor Jude Barry — who was hired to argue the City’s case in court despite never having litigated a single CVRA case?

Let’s talk about leaks. What are the ethics of routinely leaking confidential documents and closed session information to the San Francisco Chronicle, as Gillmor routinely does? We know what state law has to say about it: it’s against the law.

What are the ethics of governing by personal agendas and resentments and cronyism?

As long as Gillmor controlled the council, she and her cadre obliterated concert revenues with a unique and unreasonable curfew — eliminating the single source of stadium revenue that goes directly to the general fund, as well as indirect revenue from sales and hotel taxes.

Gillmor also hired an $800,000 city manager — a contract that included a $3,500 “housing allowance” even though said city manager lived only blocks away from City Hall, in Sunnyvale. Gillmor irresponsibly allowed an explosion in top City salaries and paid nearly $1 million to a consultant whose most notable achievements were losing $10 million for San José and being the subject of two grand jury investigations.

We invite Mr. Shanks to address these ethical questions in our publication, as well as explain why he suddenly found it necessary on September 8 to jump into Santa Clara politics after his long sabbatical.


  1. Colin Bakel 2 years ago

    Here here. I was once a disciple of Dr. Thomas Shanks. He was always the definition of fair and ethical, but I have to question his piece in the Mercury News. It reads like the playbook from the people associated with Mayor Gillmor. If you’re reading this Dr. Shanks, I hope you’ll consider explaining yourself as you are leaving a massive stain on the reputation of the Markkula Ethics Center where you served as the Executive Director.

    • Davy L 2 years ago

      It appears Dr. Thomas Shanks has already gone over to the “dark” side. His article is full of half-truths, make-up truths, and outright lies. In reality, it is no more than a political ad for Lisa Gillmor. And a very phony one at that.

    • Davy L 2 years ago

      A few of his big fat lies —
      Item (1) “…the City Council … did not … explain (?) … to the public after the closed session vote …” That is false. At the session conclusion, the City Spokesperson (Michelle Templeton) replied to the Media regarding the settlement, with the complete settlement agreement. At the same time, Mayor Gillmor presented her side to a Chronicle reporter, who then wrote a very bias version of what took place. When confronted with this, Councilmember Becker replied, “I believe the public has the right to know the whole truth about this matter and there are significant differences between what the Mayor has leaked and what actually happened. I respect the laws that prevent me from talking about closed session agenda items. I am pleased the majority of the Council approved seeking an end to the litigation over the stadium. It had gone on too long and cost the City too much money. With the settlement, we now have millions coming to the City.”
      Item (2) “Councilmembers Raj Chahal and Karen Hardy … did not recuse (sic) themselves from voting … despite numerous (?) requests” This is false. This phony charge was initialed by Brian Doyle, who was fired earlier. “Under investigation” does not imply guilt. Our city attorney advised them there was no need to recluse.
      Item (3) “City Council … rejecting … public discussion … independent financial analysis …” This is false. Public discussion has been on-going for the past five years. The “independent financial analysis” was brought up as a fake last minute stalling tactic, and recognized as such. It was promptly voted down by the Council.
      Item (4) Former “… city manager and city attorney …” fired “… at urging of the team (49ers) …” This is false. The two firings had nothing to do with the 49ers, nor was it ever requested by them. The city manager, Deanna Santana, was fired for her poor handling of our city’s finances. The city attorney, Brian Doyle, was fired for failing to notify the Council of an email he received, which would have saved our city millions in the settlement with the six District voting system.
      Item (5) “In the last two years, a 49ers friendly City Council majority approved every major team request …” This is false. Not until the recent settlement, no “major team request” has ever been made or approved by our City Council.
      Finally, he attacked our city comparing it to the city of Bell. Turn about is fair play. This very dishonest article of his is nothing more than a big pile of dog poop.

      • Buchser Alum 2 years ago

        Recuse is the proper verb to use in that context. Not recluse.

        The rest of your comment is as inadequate as your vocabulary.

        • Davy L 2 years ago

          Okay. Sorry. However, the rest of my comments still stands. As for most of your writings, I relate them mostly to garbage.

  2. CSC 2 years ago

    In the last paragraph of Mr. Shanks “Unethical Behavior” opinion [vis Mercury News], he writes “the circumstances today in Santa Clara are substantially different than the Bell scandal…It would be disastrous and sad if Santa Clara became the Bell of Northern California.” Interestingly enough, Shanks’ 556 words organized in 10 paragraphs spoke to no fact of the City of Bell matter as it might pertain to the City of Santa Clara.
    With just a population of 33k residents, an average household income of $55k, and poverty rate of 23%, the City of Bell made headlines a decade ago when the city council paid residents to collect absentee ballots and fill them in misleading voters to exempt the city from salary and benefits limitations. City manager, Robert Rizzo voted himself a $1.5 million annual wage and benefits package (his annual salary was $787,637) and his allied assistant city manager Angela Spaccia and police chief Randy Adams were also hauling in overly generous compensation packages. The City of Bell didn’t make national headlines because of local business partnerships with a professional sports team – it made the news because of corruption, irregularly high salaries and benefits paid to city managers, and illegal voting practices. Does that part sound familiar?
    The quality of work Mr. Shanks produced from 1998-2015 seems questionable. He claims to have developed “a practical code of ethics and award-winning training programs for its (City of Santa Clara) political campaign” but soon after his employment, the political campaign of Patrick Nikolai to unseat Mike Sellers as police chief in 2016 was called into question based on ethics.
    Supported by the Santa Clara Police Officers Association PAC, campaign fliers were produced shading in the complexions of minority city council candidates to make them appear darker. In 2017, the City of Santa Clara hired Deanna Santana providing her an astronomical bump in pay and $5,000 monthly housing allowance despite Santana already owning a home a short commute away in Sunnyvale and, that same year, the city entered into a lawsuit to fight district voting opposing the California Voting Rights Act. It would be appropriate to question if in 2016 (a) the City of Santa Clara simply through Mr. Shanks work into the dumpster or if (b) Mr. Shanks’ “award” isn’t as prolific as he personally believes it is.
    American democracy in the City of Santa Clara isn’t at a breaking point. In fact, it has improved thanks in part to financial support of community businesses that employ large numbers of minority employees. Today’s Santa Clara City Council is a much better reflection of the community’s ethnic and social diversity and let’s make a couple facts abundantly clear…
    • There is no physical evidence or witness testimony to substantiate Mr. Shanks claim that a professional sports team “urged” the Santa Clara City Council to fire either the city manager or city attorney.
    • The $3mm Jed York contributed to support four candidates and $534k provided to uphold district voting are both legal contributions.

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