This story has been updated.
In a shocking move Thursday night, the Santa Clara City Council fired City Manager Deanna Santana, ending several months of rancor.
Santana was ousted on a 4-2 vote, with the consistent majority prevailing over Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Councilmember Kathy Watanabe.
Santana is the state’s highest-paid city manager by more than $100,000, with an annual compensation (salary plus one-time payments) in 2020 (the most recent year available from the state controller) of $521,527.
In 2020, she was paid nearly twice as much as the mayor of Los Angeles.
Controversies over compensation and absentee management were at the heart of tonight’s action, although opponents complained it was another expression of the political influence of the San Francisco 49ers over politics in this city of approximately 130,000. Santa Clara has been home to the NFL team since Levi’s Stadium opened in 2014.
Santana’s top four assistants also earn city-manager-level salaries, each paid more than $368,000 in 2020. Santana was previously San Jose’s deputy city manager, then Oakland’s city administrator and Sunnyvale’s city manager before accepting Santa Clara’s top job in 2017.
The council tonight suspended Santana immediately with pay and said it would meet in a week to name an interim executive.
The most recent flare up occurred at a Dec. 14 meeting, when three new council members raised questions about Santana’s compensation, and whether the 4.5% “cost-of-living” raise for all city workers should apply to her.
Santana bristled at the council criticism, accusing the council of “workplace intimidation and hostility” and hired a lawyer.
At the meeting, she complained about the council members’ “reckless and uninformed dialogue,” and their “outrageous allegations.”
The council had approved Santana’s pay raise in November 2020 but made it effective Dec. 26, 2021. That bumped her base salary to $468,675.
Briefed by the city’s legal staff, the new council members discovered that, according to her initial 2017 contract, the council could not discuss Santana’s performance or compensation at any time, without her agreement. They had sought a closed session to discuss her contract.
Santana’s employment contract only guaranteed her”cost-of-living raises” at the same rate as all other unclassified managers, and prevented the council from discussing any aspect of her employment or performance without her consent to such a discussion.
The contract has no fixed term and includes no provision for an annual or periodic review or performance appraisal. Santana was hired at a base salary of $372,886, plus a $3,750 monthly housing allowance and a $550 monthly car allowance.
If the council had any concerns about her compensation or performance and she continued to refuse to allow a meeting to discuss these issues, the council’s only recourse would be to unilaterally terminate her contract, which it did at the Feb. 24 closed session between 5 and 6pm.
As city manager, Santana also served as director of the Stadium Authority and the city’s Utilities Department, roles that she and her supporters used to justify her total compensation.
Vice Mayor Suds Jain did not attend today’s hastily called meeting.
After her response to the council complaints in December, Jain, who has led the new council majority, appeared to let things slide.
In a statement at the time, he said, “She’s worth a good salary certainly, and she’s very competent, but I just think it’s embarrassing for the city of Santa Clara to have a salary that high.”
Councilmember Raj Chahal voted against a merit increase for Santana in 2020, and joined three others—Anthony Becker, Karen Hardy and Kevin Park—in supporting Santana’s suspension and dismissal.
In the public portion of the meeting that followed the closed session, Mayor Gillmor lashed out at her colleagues. “I just want to say that, with the actions the city council has taken, I really question the adherence to the city charter, the city manager’s employment agreement and the Brown Act,” she said.
“Clearly, clearly the council majority has put themselves and the City of Santa Clara in a really precarious situation. I’ve been in public office for several decades. No city council has ever gutted city hall,” Gillmor said, and let out an audible sigh. “And put our residents in jeopardy with no management at city hall. No city council has so obviously put a private interest above the public interest. This is a really sad day in Santa Clara history.”
Watanabe called out her colleagues by name. “Councilmember Hardy, Councilmember Becker, Councilmember Chahal, Councilmember Park: I have no confidence in you. You clearly do not understand good governance. and you have undermined many many—much of the hard work and the goodwill that has been done amongst this city and staff.
“I would like to just close in saying: You will rue this day,” Watanabe said.
Hardy, Chahal and Gillmor are up for re-election in the fall.
The council decision drew mixed reaction from several public commenters, which included threats of a recall and vows to defeat Hardy and Chahal at the ballot box.