Santa Clara City Council Fires City Attorney Brian Doyle ‘for No Cause’

The Santa Clara City Council Wednesday evening voted 5-2 behind closed doors to fire City Attorney Brian Doyle “for no cause,” ending months of speculation and rumors about the contentious lawyer’s fate.

The vote was preceded by warnings from Doyle and his own attorney that the termination was unfair and illegal, and it was sandwiched between critical comments from citizens mostly defending Doyle. One caller into the Zoom meeting accused the council majority of following the wishes of their “49ers puppet masters.”

Doyle has represented the city in multiple legal battles with the San Francisco 49ers over management of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

After the council vote, Councilmember Kathy Watanabe, who opposed Doyle’s dismissal, said he  “was used as a scapegoat for previous city administrations’ inability to act in a timely manner regarding a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.” The council majority had been vocal critics of the way Doyle handled the lawsuit, which cost the city $6 million.

Watanabe had first revealed the existence of an internal investigation of Doyle’s performance four months ago. She and Mayor Lisa Gillmor opposed Wednesday’s action.

“The majority of the city council has determined that they no longer want [Brian Doyle] to serve at their pleasure,” Gillmor announced after the council executive session. “The vote was to terminate the city attorney for no cause.”

Voting to fire Doyle were Vice Mayor Raj Chahal, and Councilmembers Suds Jain, Kevin Park, Karen Hardy and Anthony Becker. They made no comments following the vote.

“Our city attorney is dismissed without cause,” Gillmor told Zoom, YouTube and Facebook audiences.

The agenda of the special council meeting had not mentioned Doyle or his position, stating simply that the meeting was called to consider the “discipline, dismissal or release” of an unidentified city employee.

“While the council has not identified the employee whose discipline, dismissal or release will be under consideration at tonight’s closed session ... all indications are that it is the city attorney,” Thomas Stout, who is acting as Doyle’s attorney, told the council during public comments. Stout is a former federal prosecutor, whose Oakland law firm specializes in “complex civil litigation, white collar defense and government and internal investigations.”

Stout formally requested the meeting on Doyle’s job “be held in open session so the people of Santa Clara have complete transparency about the actions of their elected officials and the reasons for those actions.”

He said Doyle received no written notice of this meeting, and that the city is stalling on a public records request for documents pertaining to Doyle’s dismissal.

“Mr. Doyle has had no assurance that the meeting was called legally, nor does he have any notice of what reasons given, if any, there may be for his discipline, dismissal or release,” said Stout. “If the council votes to discipline or fire the city attorney tonight, it will have done so in secret and for no legal reason. Mr. Doyle does not want these proceedings to be held in secret. In whose interest does the secrecy serve?”

Doyle also spoke before the vote, defending his four-year tenure.

“Throughout my tenure, regardless of the challenges, I have remained focused on ethically and competently doing my job,” Doyle said. “With the city currently facing a variety of legal challenges with significant long-term implications for the community, now is not the time to create a vacuum in its legal team’s leadership. I’m committed to finishing the job I started.”

In a Facebook post, Watanabe said that since 2017, Doyle “has addressed the flagrant inadequacies demonstrated by the 49ers management and tried to bring them into compliance with the law, identification of wage theft, lack of procurement policies and so much more when a municipal stadium is involved and putting the city at risk with state law.”

“This council has now taken action to ruin the 40-year career of a hard-working city employee and resident of Santa Clara,” she wrote on Facebook. “They have done the bidding of the stadium management that got them elected with a $3 million campaign in November 2020. It took less than a year to achieve the goal of dismissing the person who stands in the way of the stadium management being accountable to the Stadium Authority and city staff. It took less than a year to dismiss the person who has been successful in beating the stadium management in court.”

Watanabe called this week’s council vote “disgraceful and embarrassing.”

6 Comments

  1. One parks and rec commissioner, Burt Fied, told the Council they would be harmed if they fired Doyle.

    “You have targets on your backs”

  2. Is SJI’s editor on vacation? Does anybody proofread anything?

    The timing of this story concerning the city changing policy of NOT releasing details of payments for legal representation suggests these two news items are related.

    Is SJI making a connection between the two?

    The city is hiding something.

  3. Brian Doyle is an excellent Attorney.

    The Santa Clara City Council is well known for administrative blunders and failed appeasements to the SF49ers.

    The City of Santa Clara would be well advised to “release” the City Manager in lieu of Mr. Doyle.

    David S. Wall

  4. Mr. Hortzclaw has left out essential background and context about this story. The demise of Mr. Doyle’s career is fundamentally grounded in competing interests and perspectives as they relate to very serious city business in Santa Clara.

    Levi’s Stadium is owned by the City of Santa Clara. Its construction was financed mainly by the City’s Stadium Authority with total costs of more than $1.3 billion after approval by voters in 2009 and after agreement on a leasing arrangement with the San Francisco 49ers. The project’s feasibility and its benefits to the City at the time were not so clear-cut (https://www.sfgate.com/49ers/article/Levi-s-Stadium-The-1-3-billion-bet-5687409.php#photo-6723396). The stadium was leased to the San Francisco 49ers organization in 2014. Owner Jed York and the 49ers signed a contract regarding the terms and conditions for use of the stadium with the Stadium Authority that year but, since then, have repeatedly attempted to take advantage of City resources and to water down the terms of their lease arrangement. (The Stadium Authority Board, by the way, are the members of the City Council https://www.santaclaraca.gov/our-city/santa-clara-stadium-authority/stadium-authority-board.)

    The City successfully repulsed 49er attempts to acquire other City property and successfully defended the terms of the agreed contract in court. In general, Mayor Gillmor and the pre-2020 Council majority did not back down in the face of 49er encroachments and 49er public relations campaigns to discredit and intimidate that Council majority. During those years, City Attorney Doyle essentially played the role of nose tackle in the City’s defense strategy, consistently defeating the 49ers’ offensive and pernicious ground game (https://howtheyplay.com/team-sports/Offensive-and-Defensive-Football-Positions-Explained).

    Owner Jed York’s “Plan B” was what amounted to a hostile takeover of the Santa Clara City Council through an unprecedented and massive electoral intervention in 2020. As noted in Mr. Nortclaw’s reporting, York spent $3 million in support of four 49er-friendly council candidates, of whom three prevailed–Anthony Becker (District 6), Suds Jain (District 5) and Kevin Park (District 4). When combined with the two existing “pro-49er” Council incumbents (Vice Mayor Raj Chahal (District 2) and Karen Hardy (District 3)), York helped put into place what looks to be a fairly pliant 5-2 Council majority. This cleared the path for advantageous modifications to the Levi’s Stadium lease and other arrangements in favor of the 49ers organization (see https://sanjosespotlight.com/santa-clara-council-candidates-49ers-police-union-point-fingers-over-campaign-donations/ and https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/10/25/opinion-santa-clara/).

    Since the 2020 election, there have been pitched skirmishes, some of them made public, between Mayor Gillmor and Councilmember Watanabe (District 1), the last remaining “anti-49er” ally of the mayor, and the rest of the Council members. The issues included calls for transparency regarding the content of meetings between “pro-49er” Councilmembers and 49er representatives, as well as transparency about meetings with all lobbyists with business with the City, including those involving Mayor Gillmor (https://www.sanjoseinside.com/the-fly/gillmor-could-get-more-than-expected-in-transparency-pitch/; https://www.sanjoseinside.com/news/watanabe-faces-call-for-censure-accusations-of-patterned-behavior-after-aapi-rally-rebuff/).

    Santa Clara has a history of being a well-run and well-financed municipality due, in large part, to its direct public ownership of “business type” assets, e.g. the electric utility, the water utility, the sewer utility, the water recycling utility, the Mission City Cemetery, the Santa Clara Convention Center, and sports and recreational facilities. These public entities collectively bring in more than twice the revenues collected by the City via taxes and fees. Such publicly-owned enterprises allow the City to maintain superior infrastructure, facilities and services for its 130,000 residents at lower cost (see the easy to follow monthly financial status reports https://www.santaclaraca.gov/home/showpublisheddocument/74346/637601236461870000). Publicly-owned enterprises have made Santa Clara a more affordable and pleasant place to live (ask residents of Santa Clara about how reasonable their electric bill is or about the free City-wide wifi service). These are vitally important for city residents’ quality of life.

    While the Stadium Authority is a separate entity and the City is not liable for the debts or obligations of the Stadium Authority (https://www.santaclaraca.gov/our-city/santa-clara-stadium-authority),
    the public investment in building Levi’s Stadium and entering into a partnership with Jed York and the 49ers was a calculated gamble to bolster the City’s surplus revenue-earning assets, as well as its stature and exposure regionally and nationally. With Levi’s Stadium’s economic viability in the post-COVID-19 era uncertain, the Stadium Authority could be saddled with financial obligations and burdens it could not previously anticipate and that could negatively affect its finances and services.
    This is in addition to any further encroachments and costs that the City might end up absorbing now that there is a majority of Council members beholden to York and his business interests.

    As such, there is a significant threat to the integrity of a city that has historically distinguished itself by its relatively strong finances and high-quality services. It appears the 49ers’ push to eliminate Mr. Doyle is part of their strategy to turn the table against the Stadium Authority and in favor of concessions that will bolster York’s profit-making potential The potentially destructive power that billionaire York and the 49ers now wield in Santa Clara constitutes a clear and present danger, a massive and unparalleled intrusion into City governance.

  5. Salem,

    I mostly agree with your post, but you over complicate the reasons why they stadium was built: I think it boils down to the fact the city council was just really gung-ho and excited about pro-football–the illogic of the stadium be damned. It was very clear and easy to see that from the city’s health that this was and remains a super bad idea (btw–how much money has the stadium to date provided to the schools?–hahaha).

    I’m a bit perplexed about Karen Hardy being pro-stadium/49ers now. She was a vehement opponent of the stadium before it was built. What changed? Is she just trying her best to salvage a bad situation?

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