Santa Clara police chief pay raise sparks criticism
Santa Clara Police Chief Pat Nikolai is pictured in this file photo.

    Santa Clara’s police chief is set to receive a significant raise for the first time since stepping into the job in 2020, but some city officials think the money could be better spent elsewhere.

    Police Chief Pat Nikolai is getting the maximum city salary increase allowed at 10%, hiking his base pay from over $313,000 to more than $345,000—inching him closer to being one of the highest paid officials in the city.

    According to public database Transparent Califonia, Nikolai was one of the five highest paid police chiefs in the state last year. His two assistants, Derek Rush and Wahid Kazem, are also in the top five. City documents also listed Nikolai’s 2022 base salary as roughly $313,000 before the newly approved raise.

    A screenshot of police chief salaries in California. Courtesy of Transparent California.


    By comparison, San Jose Police Chief Anthony Mata earned $311,262 last year as his base pay running a city more than seven times the size of Santa Clara.

    The Santa Clara City Council approved Nikolai’s salary increase last month with a 6-1 vote, with Councilmember Kevin Park voting no in protest of the raise.

    “It was basically spitting into the wind, but somebody has to bring it up,” Park told San José Spotlight.

    Park believes the chief of police is more of a ceremonial position and that the salary should be reduced to reflect that. He said reducing the chief’s pay, or eliminating one of the city’s two assistant police chief positions, would free up more funds for public issues such as homelessness.

    “We talk about unhoused issues all the time,” he said. “But we’re not committed to do anything about it because the only monies we spent are on staff salaries.”

    Nikolai defended the necessity of his role and said he works hard for his salary. The Santa Clara Police Department has approximately 150 sworn officers.

    “When you look at my qualifications, I would stack them up against anybody,” he told San José Spotlight.

    Nikolai’s background includes a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and more than 30 years of experience in the police field. Santa Clara voters elected Nikolai as police chief in a 2020 special election after former Assistant Police Chief Dan Winter dropped out of the race. Santa Clara is the only California city to elect its chief instead of appointing the position.

    Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor supported the chief’s raise at the June council meeting.

    “It’s a well-earned raise,” she said. “I think the Salary Setting (Commission) got it right.”

    City documents reflect the city’s Salary Setting Commission, which decides compensation for the mayor and councilmembers, chose to increase Nikolai’s salary by 10%. The city’s two assistant police chiefs, in comparison, were each earning an average salary that was 11% more than the chief prior to the recent raise, according to city documents.

    The commission also compared the chief’s monthly salary to police chiefs in other neighboring regions, and city documents showed his salary was 3% below average. The comparison included Hayward, Milpitas, Mountain View, Palo Alto and Redwood City, and Santa Clara, San Mateo and Alameda counties.

    Councilmember Suds Jain doesn’t think Nikolai is equipped for the chief position, thus not deserving of the raise, and said he felt he had to vote yes based on the Salary Setting Commission’s decision. He’s now leading the charge to change the police chief’s position from elected to appointed to open up the applicant pool to attract the best in the country. Doing so means changing the city charter, which would need to be decided by voters at the ballot box.

    “We need to be careful about how we spend money,” Jain told San José Spotlight. “The raise was out of my control.”

    Nikolai said despite questions about his qualifications, he is best suited for the role.

    “The qualifications issue is just something that some of the councilmembers are using to put this issue on the ballot,” Nikolai said.

    Contact Annalise Freimarck at [email protected] or follow @annalise_ellen on Twitter.

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