The firing of Santa Clara city attorney Brian Doyle leaves the city poised for major political changes, including bridging its divisive relationship with the San Francisco 49ers.
The City Council ousted Doyle two weeks ago in a closed door meeting. Councilmembers did not explain why he was terminated but he was the subject of a monthslong internal investigation. Santa Clara leaders refused to answer San José Spotlight’s questions about the probe, including its status, costs and whether it will be made public.
The vote was 5-2, with Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Councilmember Kathy Watanabe — Doyle’s two allies on the council — opposing the action.
Doyle has been a controversial figure at City Hall since he was hired four years ago. The city attorney, a close ally of the mayor, publicly feuded with the NFL team with multiple legal conflicts arising from the city over management and finances related to Levi’s Stadium, such as the loss of revenue from non-NFL events, alleged mismanagement of the stadium, the 49ers right to hire vendors, a dispute over public safety costs at the stadium and a conflict over the 49ers rent.
Tensions boiled over last April after Doyle allegedly went on a tirade during a Zoom call with team officials. The attorney claimed the 49ers wanted him to “sleep with the fishes,” and accused team officials of working for “thugs.”
Things got so bad that team officials refused to meet with Doyle at all.
Losing Doyle isn’t the only blow Gillmor has endured. Last year, she lost her council majority after the 49ers poured money into the city council elections. The team backed three candidates who ended up on the City Council: Anthony Becker, Suds Jain and Kevin Park. All three voted to remove Doyle, along with Vice Mayor Raj Chahal and Councilmember Karen Hardy.
Doyle also faced public criticism for his handling of a voting rights lawsuit that cost Santa Clara taxpayers nearly $6 million after a pair of unsuccessful appeals. The city was sued in 2017 by several plaintiffs, including the Asian Law Alliance of Santa Clara County, for allegedly violating the California Voting Rights Act for using an at-large election system that diluted the votes of minorities.
According to a recent media report, Doyle allegedly failed to tell the City Council about a settlement offer that would have greatly reduced what Santa Clara paid to the plaintiffs. Doyle told San José Spotlight it’s categorically untrue that he withheld the offer.
A shift in political power
City insiders told San José Spotlight that Doyle’s removal also marks the loss of an important ally for Gillmor, who has tussled with the 49ers for years.
“The problem that Mayor Gillmor has is she no longer has a Bill Barr as an attorney for the city,” said political consultant Rich Robinson, referring to the former U.S. attorney general under President Donald Trump. “Whatever lawsuits they have with the 49ers are going to be looked at in a new way by an attorney who is more objective, who is not simply doing the bidding of the mayor.”
Gillmor did not respond to requests for comment. She’s previously expressed support for Doyle publicly. She tweeted a link recently to a San Francisco Chronicle article and wrote, “Santa Clarans are asking me: Is Jed York targeting our City Attorney?”
Doyle told San José Spotlight on Friday that many people have reached out to him to say they are appalled the city fired him. He suggested the council removed him because the 49ers CEO, Jed York, has “purchased a puppet regime.”
“(People) view this as them carrying out a political hit job from Jed York,” Doyle said. “Many, many people, including in the wider legal community, consider me to be an extremely well-respected and capable attorney, and know that there really are no grounds for terminating me for no cause.”
49ers officials could not be reached for comment.
It’s unclear who will replace Doyle. The City Council met this week to discuss the position of interim city attorney, but took no action. Robinson said whoever replaces Doyle will most likely be an ally of the officials who ousted him — the council majority — and not Gillmor.
“The fact is, there’s a new majority in town—the majority of the council are not Gillmor-centric people,” Robinson said. “I think you’re going to see a much more independent city attorney, and I think that’s the benefit of this.”
Doyle scoffed at the idea of Santa Clara finding someone who is willing to take over his position.
“Who do you think is going to come work as city attorney in Santa Clara now? Give me a break,” Doyle said. “These people have no idea what they’re doing. I’m sure no one’s going to work there—no one of any caliber.”
Doyle declined to comment on whether he intends to sue the city over his firing.