Santa Clara Mayor, Merc Still at Odds over Report on PR Flack (Who Got the Story Changed)

Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor blocked—and later unblocked—Mercury News reporter Ramona Giwargis on Twitter last week over an article that questioned the legality of an expensive PR flack hired by the city. The Merc’s story suggested that Gillmor ran afoul of the city charter by using $450-an-hour Banner Public Affairs consultant Pete Hillan to help craft her message on issues related to the 49ers, who have been at odds with the mayor and her City Council allies over Levi’s Stadium management. Niner-friendly councilors Dominic Caserta and Patty Mahan applauded the Merc’s reporting, but Gillmor and her supporters called the piece riddled with inaccuracies. “The story was clearly wrong,” Gillmor tells Fly. During last week’s council meeting, Caserta cited the Merc article to advance his claim that Gillmor broke the law. But City Manager Deanna Santana and interim City Attorney Brian Doyle repeatedly refuted those assertions. After a heated back-and-forth, punctuated by Caserta telling Gillmor she should be ashamed, the council voted 5-1 to approve another deal with Banner. Gillmor tells Fly she hoped Giwargis would follow up on her story by writing about the vote. “The facts speak for themselves,” Gillmor says. “I’m just disappointed that the Mercury News was presented with those facts and all we got was radio silence.” Merc managing editor Bert Robinson says the paper stands by its initial online report—even though it was altered several times—and couldn’t help but laugh about the usefulness of blocking a reporter on Twitter. “The signal that it sends is that the journalist has gotten under the politician's skin and the politician is being childish,” he says. Though Gillmor admitted she was wrong to block Giwargis, the mayor sticks to her claim that the article is littered with errors. Robinson says the updates were due to PR consultant Hillan, his former boss at the Merc, having unique access to editors because of his past work with the paper. Hillan succeeded in pressing editors to revise a specific passage regarding the city charter. Those changes, however, were only noted by an updated timestamp, leading Santa Clara blogger Robert Haugh to call out the accuracy of the story and the transparency in how it was reported. Robinson says the daily paper of record will consider adding endnotes to better explain how stories change—and not just for corrections. “We have not done that with clarifications,” he says. “Maybe we should.” One last takeaway: If Santa Clara still plans to pay Hillan an extraordinary amount of money to craft media statements and op-eds against the 49ers, how exactly is this saga ever going to end? Maybe an even higher-priced mercenary has the answer.

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15 Comments

  1. This is a story with many stories. I do not live in Santa Clara, but I do read about it as I sort of miss my team in San Francisco, and the stories about Santa Clara make me think our San Francisco Supervisors are playing there as well. A madness is engulfing this South Bay town. Now I think Lisa Gillmor is a very sincere and talented mayor. But the toxic nature of the politics there makes me wonder if our Hetch Hetchy water is being substituted for water from a chemical plant. There is really nothing wrong with a mayor using a PR firm. She is, after all, the mayor.

    “If Santa Clara still plans to pay Hillan an extraordinary amount of money to craft media statements and op-eds against the 49ers, how exactly is this saga ever going to end? Maybe an even higher-priced mercenary has the answer”

    This the problem. You don’t read about libraries, parks, or senior programs in Santa Clara.

    You read about the 49ers, the 49ers, the 49ers. I wonder if Putin is a secret owner.

    Yes, the Mayor is Lisa Gillmor. She deserves respect, loyalty, trust, and respect. But she also gets the job of getting the trains to run on time.

  2. It’s kinda sad that the Mercury News can’t admit they were wrong. They got info from a single source and/or bad information/leads from council members that are bitter and spiteful. For the Mercury to say: “Violations constitute “councilmanic interference,” a misdemeanor which, upon conviction, can lead to removal from office” is a joke. The “facts” they were using were based on what? And to imply there was a crime and the chance for removal from office…that is really shameful. That is not reporting, that is politics. And a newspaper is supposed to report facts. In the world of misinformation becoming a norm, let’s hold our local news outlets accountable to facts. The article changed multiple times. Their premise was debunked. There was no crime. The Mayor’s actions were appropriate.
    No one wants to talk about the 49ers all the time….NO ONE! But the 49ers are not being good faith partners. They are taking advantage of the fact that Santa Clara has never managed a stadium. The 49ers are pros, and they are not respecting the City that sponsored them. Shame on them too.
    The City of Santa Clara should be talking about their leadership in land use, regional collaboration/leadership, and placemaking in our cities. The 49ers have taken too much energy and the Mayor should have access to professionals that can help manage the messages to and about the 49ers.

    • Kirk – I think everyone would agree that the Santa Clara Mayor needs professional help getting HER message across. She is terrible at it. Her animosity and bitterness is obvious. But the fact is, you don’t even live in Santa Clara. Why are you so obsessed with Santa Clara politics and especially the mayor? Because you own a pizzeria in town? Inquiring minds want to know – all of Santa Clara wants to know.

      • Hi “Vocal Critic,”
        I’ve said this many times, especially when people feel that the only voices that can be heard in a city are the voice of the residents. It’s that approach part fo the problem in our region? We are a region. A region is bigger than a single city. We are not in a silo. Everyone’s actions affects each other. I do what I do because I want others to be involved and engaged in the future of the area. I believe we can solve the many issues we have by being engaged and a part of the discussion.
        The mayor does a great job, but there is always opportunity to improve her message and style. She is representing the city that has the ability to (and I believe will) lead the county. Santa Clara has the financial stability, the assets, and the resources to bring all parties to the table and develop a plan for how we create a great area that works.
        Why do I spend my time in Santa Clara? Sure, I have a business here (well, it is not my business anymore now that we are a worker-cooperative…it’s the employee’s business), but as I mentioned above, I believe the answer is in Santa Clara. And there is now a Mayor and Council that are standing up for Santa Clara residents and are not being pressured by outside forces (e.g., 49ers, developers, politicians, cities). Oh, and by the way, I was involved with Santa Clara politics long before I opened up A Slice of New York.
        Does that answer your question?
        -Kirk

      • For the record, Mr. Vartan has been active in Santa Clara politics for many years, and he has contributed much to responsible development. So it is unfair to Vartan to belittle him as he is a responsible activist. To a large extent, Gillmor and her allies have done well. In November, they were unfairly attacked by a PAC that was either supported by the 49ers or at least had the team’s blessing. However, the tragedy is that Vartan, as valuable as he is for a past record of excellent activism, and the Gillmor majority, is that they have stopped being part of the solution, they wandered into the void of fanatic hatred of factionalism. Beset with characters who claim to be civic emgagers, but they act like rogue characters from a Phillip Dick novel. There has been tremendous economic success due to Gillmor’s work. That is outstanding. But in the field of civic engagement, there is a dark hole of blame, catfighting, and immature antics of Punky Pundits that leave the average resident seeking a shower after attending a council meeting.

  3. Maybe the city is in way over their heads on managing a stadium or dealing with a multibillion organization like the NFL. They got sucked into this deal with promises of riches and greed. When Joe Montana came to a city council meeting selling his partnership with a hotel wanting to build across from the stadium on city land he was greeted by gushing council members who only wanted photos of them with Joe and quickly approved the project. They completely made themselves looking like fools and idiots. What Santa Cara now has is a crappy billion dollar stadium that nobody wants to patronize and no idea how to manage this failure. What a pity!

  4. [email protected] Kirk you need to become familiar with the Charter. The only person who can IInteract with employees (includes contract employees) is the City Manager. When a council member (includes Mayor) starts interacting with employees it is councilmanic interference. Our mayor is very delibert in her actions and knows exactly what she is doing, do not be foolish about this.

    • @Ed,
      I agree. If you watch the last council meeting on Tuesday, Nov 21, 2017, you will see that the Mayor was given the authority to interact with the consultant. It was actually written into the contract. But ignoring that for a moment, the then City Manager Batra knew exactly what was happening and gave permission for this situation to exist (the City Manager has this authority and this is allowed). How do I know this? If the City Manager did not approve this activity, he would not have approved three months of invoices in a row that stated this activity occurred.
      So, please explain how the City Charter is an issue in this case?
      -Kirk

    • Sorry Ed … Wrong. Consultants are specifically NOT employees per the charter and this whole fiasco was clarified by the current City Manager too. You must be supporting cASSerts and believing his and Mayhem’s crap … go do some research for yourself before you start chewing off your other foot.

    • … and the annoying appointed Junior Mayor had better be careful who he points fingers at for councilmanic interference. When he points one finger, four point back at himself. He is constantly bossing staff around at City Hall and admitted so himself — he would have been doing it at the last meeting if PR lady had been there. Poor Dom is so desperate he keeps sticking those pointed shoes up his own buttard… and was that before or after he lied about his 49er payoffs, oops political donations? Hard to keep track of all his shenanigans and lies.

  5. The San Jose Mercury has been horrible for years. They have zero credibility. Their articles are filled with half truths and bias. Their online
    edition is embarrassingly filled with grammatical errors and typos, and they obviously have nobody proofreading.

  6. Thank you, San Jose Inside, for filling in more of the backstory here. The Merc should have been up front at the start of its story about the fact that Pete Hillan used to work at the Merc. “Robinson says the updates were due to PR consultant Hillan, his former boss at the Merc, having unique access to editors because of his past work with the paper. ”

    The story just confirms for me the correctness of my family’s decision to end, several years ago, our more than 25-year long 7 days/week subscription to the Merc because of shoddy, biased reporting and the continual writing of stories which seem to come from a source/sources with an axe to grind rather than from the objective point of view of a news reporter.

  7. A local politician is having a dispute with a local newspaper. It does not seem to be a strange occurrence. Lisa Gillmor is acting like a strong mayor which does not surprise me. After all, Santa Clara has had three city managers in three years. One acted as if he did not trust the City Council, one was a fall guy for every mistake, and the current city manager, according to SJI, is golden parachuting her way through every city in the Bay Area. Now the voters are returning to Gillmor like the birds coming to San Juan Capistrano (a gathering place for two council members invited on a private junket by people with private agendas). Again, not unusual given that Santa Clara thanks to the Mayor is enjoying excellent growth. The kerfuffle over the use of Hillan seems trivial. Hillan is an experienced PR guy who even works for the government of Saudia Arabia as an unregistered foreign agent. Well, Manafort did the same for years. Perhaps the Mercury News should do its homework better and perhaps Gillmor and her allies should meet more with residents rather than lobbyists. Best to act like grownups.

  8. Murky Gnus is notorious for changing story content without notation and censoring reader comments without due process. They have been caught reposting duplicate stories when the comments pointed out intentional mistruths.

    There is no way to seek redress for deleted comments as the moderator is anonymous and Head Editor Barbara Marshman is unaccountable.

    The writers are encouraged to race bait and even lie to create controversy and strife. They then nominate their own writers for the stories and tout the award winning rabble-rousers as if it’s legitimate journalism- shameful.

    The same outfit that essentially demands tech companies release demographics and pay reports to prove diversity refuses to show their own employee breakdown or salary data.

    The media lies and shenanigans aren’t confined to “Hands Up Down Shoot” or the larger news outfits… the Murky Gnus is through and through a culture of corruption.

  9. While I certainly have contempt for the Merc’s parent company (Digital First Media – Denver) & often take issue with their editorials,you don’t have a 1st Amendment right that forces them to print your opinions. I wouldn’t pay a nickel to receive the Merc,although I do read it frequently to keep abreast of stories of local interest. Don’t blame the writers they’re just doing what they’re told to do,the blame lands squarely with the publisher & editor. They filter & censor dozens of comments that they deem unfit for publication every day. You’ll never see them print any comments critical of the Merc or threatening to boycott their advertisers in retaliation. Printing readers controversial comments in response to their stories & editorials is bad for business,as the number of their readers & advertisers continues to decline. The only thing it’s good for is potty training puppies or wrapping fish. According to recent polling talking birds prefer the Chronicle 4-1 over the Merc when it comes to lining the bottom of their cages. I feel your pain,but like a talking bird you don’t have very much to squawk about !

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