The Santa Clara City Council has fired city manager Deanna Santana in an emergency meeting Thursday night.
The council voted 4-2 in closed session to remove Santana as city manager based on a lack of confidence and to suspend her with pay immediately. The council also voted 4-2 to reconvene in a week to appoint an acting interim city manager. Councilmembers Anthony Becker, Karen Hardy, Kevin Park and Raj Chahal voted for the actions, while Councilmember Kathy Watanabe and Mayor Lisa Gillmor — who both entered closed session under protest — voted against it.
Councilmember Suds Jain was absent.
None of the councilmembers who voted in favor of firing Santana spoke publicly about the decision. Becker and Chahal declined comment after the meeting. Hardy could not immediately be reached.
Councilmember Kevin Park declined to elaborate on his decision to terminate Santana, but said the city is poised to move in a more positive direction.
“There are always unfortunate things that happen and in every circumstance we try to find a positive way forward. Every change elicits bright possibilities,” he said.
Park said the issue is far from over. Santana could request a hearing, and she’s also retained an attorney. Park said he isn’t sure if she’ll sue the city.
“People will do whatever is best for them, whether that means monetarily, but I’d also think people who love the city would look at what’s best for the city. I would hope the city manager would see that too,” he said.
Santana referred questions from San José Spotlight after the meeting to her attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, a San Rafael-based lawyer who represents public sector employees.
“The council’s action was reckless, retaliatory, and unlawful,” Wilkinson told San José Spotlight, speaking on Santana’s behalf. “It’s too bad they did not follow the advice given to secure legal counsel. We are assessing our options.”
Gillmor, a close ally of Santana, questioned the City Council’s adherence to the city charter, the city manager’s employment agreement and the Brown Act.
“No City Council has ever gutted City Hall and put residents in jeopardy with no management at City Hall,” Gillmor said. “No City Council has so obviously put a private interest above the public interest, and I think this is a really, really sad day in Santa Clara history.”
Watanabe said she has no confidence in the council majority and warned they will “rue this day.”
49ers spokesperson Rahul Chandhok told San José Spotlight the city manager has no operational role with Levi’s Stadium, so her departure won’t impact the team’s ability to host events.
“City Manager Santana has presided over dysfunction and financial mismanagement in Santa Clara so it is not surprising that residents urged councilmembers to make this decision,” he said.
Santana previously drew public scrutiny for having one of the largest compensation packages of any government worker in California. According to public records, Santana received an 11% salary increase from the City Council before the pandemic in 2020, bringing her base salary to more than $448,000. Her office had a number of other employees with top-of-the-pack salaries, including three assistant city managers with salaries exceeding $300,000 in 2020.
The Santa Clara city manager is responsible for overseeing several high-profile institutions, including the city’s utility, Silicon Valley Power, and the 49ers football stadium. Santana’s high salary contrasted sharply with the city’s money problems, which were exacerbated by the pandemic. According to data from the city, forecasted budget shortfalls increased from $13 million in January 2020 to $42 million by January 2021. Budget actions by the city are expected to bring that shortfall down to $17.6 million by fiscal years 2023-24.
Some City Hall insiders say Santana mistreated city workers, though it’s unclear if any complaints were filed.
Santana is the second high-profile city official axed in recent months. Last fall, the City Council terminated City Attorney Brian Doyle following a months-long internal investigation. Doyle, another close ally of Gillmor, fought with the 49ers in multiple legal conflicts over the management and finances of the stadium. He allegedly accused the 49ers of wanting him to “sleep with the fishes,” complaining about mistreatment by 49er executives. Team officials subsequently refused to meet with him.
Santana’s termination sparked polarized reactions from residents. Several who spoke at Thursday’s meeting praised the council for getting rid of Santana.
“I am glad to see this new blood at council is brave enough to clean up our city,” said Harbir Bhatia, noting that the city manager has failed to correct the city’s budget deficit. “The point is that long-term, this is not the right way we want to run a city.”
Many residents were furious with the council for setting up an abrupt meeting to get rid of Santana.
“This not only leaves the city open to potential lawsuits for wrongful termination, but also further damages the city’s ability to conduct normal business,” said Debra Von Huene, chair of the city’s cultural commission speaking in her personal capacity. “Deanna Santana should not be fired for doing her job.”
Some residents criticized the council for allegedly doing the bidding of the 49ers, who pumped money into several councilmembers’ campaigns. Some residents hinted they’ll try to recall the councilmembers who voted to remove Santana.
“Jed York is running five of our city councilmembers,” said Bob O’Keefe. “That will end, and that will end very soon.”
Rich Robinson, a local political consultant, said Santana’s salary was outrageous. He also noted that she made the political mistake of aligning herself with Gillmor.
“You got to keep four councilmembers happy,” Robinson told San José Spotlight. “If you’re not able to do that, you’re going to lose your job. And obviously Mrs. Santana wasn’t able to do that.”