Days after firing the city manager, the Santa Clara City Council plans to hire an attorney—but won’t let the mayor take charge of the search.
The council voted 6-1 on Tuesday to have Councilmember Karen Hardy seek out legal counsel to represent the local government. Councilmember Kathy Watanabe cast the lone dissenting vote, arguing this duty belongs to Mayor Lisa Gillmor according to the city charter.
“I have extreme concerns with this motion put forward because it is the mayor’s responsibility to represent the City Council and take on this task,” Watanabe said.
Watanabe and Gillmor have been at odds with the other councilmembers since a vote last week to fire the city manager, Deanna Santana. Both voted against the proposal and entered closed session to discuss the issue under protest, with Gillmor warning the council’s actions may violate the city charter, city manager’s employment agreement and the Brown Act.
Given these circumstances, Gillmor supported giving the job to Hardy, noting the city’s urgent need to hire legal representation.
“We should have done this last week when the assistant city attorney said don’t go into closed session without legal counsel,” Gillmor said. “The majority didn’t listen, and here we are—we wasted a bunch of people’s time, it’s a week later, and now you’re asking to retain legal counsel.”
The council fired Santana last week in an emergency meeting. Assistant city attorney Sujata Reuter urged the council to not make a decision without first securing legal counsel. Santa Clara has been without permanent legal representation since ousting city attorney Brian Doyle last fall following a months-long internal investigation.
Santana has already hired an attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, who represents public sector employees. Wilkinson, who previously told San José Spotlight the council’s decision is “retaliatory” and “unlawful,” did not say whether her client intends to sue Santa Clara.
It’s unclear why the council majority wanted to get rid of Santana. Some city insiders claim Santana mistreated workers, though it’s not immediately clear if any complaints have been filed against her.
She has also been criticized for her staggering compensation: In 2020, Santana received an 11% salary increase that boosted her base salary to more than $448,000. The compensation raised eyebrows as Santa Clara suffers from a budget shortfall. The city projects the shortfall will decline over the next couple years, but is expected to be approximately $17.6 million by 2023-24.
Several speakers at last week’s meeting argued the councilmembers who voted to get rid of the city manager—Hardy, Raj Chahal, Anthony Becker and Kevin Park—are captive to the San Francisco 49ers football team, which funded several of their campaigns. The 49ers management criticized Santana for financial mismanagement of the city.
The councilmembers who voted to remove Santana have not offered reasons for their actions.
The council also met in closed session to discuss appointing an interim city manager. Councilmembers did not report taking any action.