Santa Clara City Council Fires City Manager Deanna Santana

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.

Three decades of journalism experience, as a writer and editor with Gannett, Knight-Ridder and Lee newspapers, as a business journal editor and publisher and as a weekly newspaper editor in Scotts Valley and Gilroy; with Weeklys Publishing since 2017. Recipient of several first-place writing and editing awards, California News Publishers Association.

11 Comments

  1. Look up salaries of California City Managers. They are available, as are all California government salaries. She is not the highest paid – that honor goes to the City Manager of Fontana, CA with a salary of $932,623, well above Ms. Santana’s salary. Wouldn’t it be great if reporters actually checked their facts? https://publicpay.ca.gov/Reports/Cities/Cities.aspx?year=2020&rpt=1 So her contract might be unusual — obviously whoever was responsible for reading through her contract didn’t do a great job. However, as Jain noted, she has done a great job — so why fire her? The answer is pretty simple, the 49ers don’t like her because she – as she should, it’s her job – keeps them held to their contract.

  2. Talk about not checking facts…

    Mark Denny served as Fontana’s City Manager from April 2020 to October 2021, his base salary was $211,807 and a total of $280,902 when adding in all benefits and other pay. Since September 2021, Shannon Yauchzee has been Fontana’s appointed City Manager, no salary information is available yet for Mr. Yauchzee. By a wide margin, Deanna Santana was the highest compensated City Manager in California: https://transparentcalifornia.com/salaries/search/?q=city+manager&a=&y=2020&s=-base

  3. @SE Hinton & CSC,
    I don’t care too much about the who has the highest paid city manager, I am just glad that some of the fat has been cut out and maybe (but doubtful) the taxpayers will have a little more oversight in how bureaucracy wastes their investment in government.

    To the Point of Fontana vs Santa Clara City Manager Salary – the key point may be ‘Salary’.
    The Fontana issue seems to be under investigation, but is a combination of salary, severance, benefits, and most likely corruption on part of the Mayor and Council.

    (Fontana City Manager) Ken “Hunt’s contract was set to expire in 2021, but as early as 2018 just after he had signed his most recent contract, (Mayor) Warren and her three allies on the council were publicly discussing extending Hunt’s contract three years beyond 2021 to 2024 or perhaps even four years to 2025.
    Abruptly in 2019, however, Hunt left Fontana with just under 2 years left on his contract.
    Warren remained tight-lipped about the reason for his departure. ”

    “Earlier this year it was disclosed that Hunt had not only been kept on the payroll until January 2020 after his July 2019 departure,
    for which he was paid $153,558.25 in salary over those 6 months plus benefits of $31,104.23,
    but
    that he had been kept on the payroll until January 2021,
    such that he was provided
    another $307,116.51 plus benefits of $62,208.46 for those 12 months of not working. ”
    ..
    “On top of that, Hunt was provide with “settlement pay” and a “leave payoff” that together came to $511,182.54.”

    “In this way, Hunt was provided with $1,127,378.45 after he left in July 2019,
    none of which he was due if he had in fact quit.
    Tacitly acknowledged was that Hunt had been asked to leave, by Warren no less, and that the $1,127,378.45 was intended to buy his silence over what had precipitated his leaving.”

    https://sbcsentinel.com/2021/09/acquanetta-warren-unable-to-dominate-fontana-as-scandal-envelopes-her/

  4. @ CSC The URL https://publicpay.ca.gov/Reports/Cities/Cities.aspx?year=2020&rpt=1 is a California government website, so it would have the most relevant data.
    @ CA Patriot That is a more principled position than “I don’t like D. Santana because someone told me she makes too much money,” and I can respect it. However it remains a fact that the City of Santa Clara now has neither a City Lawyer nor a City Manager, and because 5 Council members, in the case of firing the lawyer, and 4 Council members, in the case of firing the City Manager, acted without much thought. Now the City can’t find a permanent City Lawyer (go figure – who wants to work for a city that just fires people without cause) and the City is now likely not to have good contract writing or managing. If the City goes down, financially or otherwise, those 4-5 Council members will have no one to blame but themselves.

  5. How many retirements will she be collecting? I remember her quite well from San Jose and I was not very impressed with her. The rich just get richer…

  6. @ THERELIABLEINFORMER Look, who cares about Santana’s salary? No one cares that NFL owners are rich, or that football players are rich, or that many software engineers are rich. Contract competency, BTW, isn’t something you can grab a person off the street to do … unlike running for City Council … She’s done a good job. Is she “overpaid?” is a distraction. Keeping the City running on time and solvent is much more important and she has made that happen. What will happen when she’s not there? I guess we’ll find out. If the City goes bankrupt Council Members Becker, Chahal, Park, Hardy and Jain have only themselves to blame.

  7. @SE Hinton yes, and if you’d looked more closely, you’d understand those numbers better. That website has TWO entries for Fontana’s City Manager. That’s because Fontana replaced its City Manager, Ken Hunt in 2020. Hunt, who never actually worked a day in 2020, received $943k, of which only $68k was actual salary, $494k was a lump-sum payment representing all of Hunt’s multi-year vacation cash-out and other items, and $369k was for other payments, mostly a $312k settlement payment representing 18 months of salary. Multiple media reports cover this, in addition to that database’s details.

    His replacement, Mark Denny, received $229k in total compensation for the period he worked in 2020, which started early in the year.

  8. comparing NFL owners salaries to public servant’s

    no wonder CA is in so much trouble with voters like these

    the future is NOT 🔆

  9. Clearly there is a rift in the Santa Clara City Council. If the Mayor is so vociferous that the city council members who fired the City Manager have an axe to grind, the public need to me made aware of the details. If this is a political witch hunt then it is indeed not acceptable that the council use or misuse its power to terminate the Manager without cause.

  10. Hiring a city manager is just wrong. Not all cities have a city manager. Instead, their Mayors and City Councils do the jobs they were elected to do: they manage their cities for the benefit of the city and it’s residents.

    The cities that hire a city manager always pass the buck to the manager. Just let an overpaid, unelected manager run things. The problem with that is that there’s no corrective mechanism.

    The city manager is hired by the Mayor and City Council — but the manager is paid by taxpayers, who have absolutely no say in the city manager’s performance or compensation. The Mayor and Council divert tax money to pay someone who is beholden only to them.

    What’s the Santa Clara Mayor and Council’s job? To cut ribbons and kiss babies?

    Instead of doing the job they were elected to do — run the city efficiently for the benefit of the residents — they’ve given their responsibilities to an unelected city manager. In return for the exhorbitant pay, she steps aside and lets the Mayor and Councilcritters accept the glory for any successes, and she takes the blame when things go wrong.

    Santa Clara has a Salary Setting Commission. If the Mayor and Council insist on hiring a city manager to do their job, they should add the city manager’s compensation to the Salary Setting Commission’s oversight.

    This would be an excellent time to put the city manager’s compensation under the purview of the Salary Setting Commission. The Commission has done an exemplary job since it’s inception, holding the line on pay raises for Santa Clara’s part-time members, and the city’s other electeds.

    Compare Santa Clara’s Commissioners to San Jose’s Commissioners, who apparently repaid the Mayor and Council for appointing them by shoveling a pile of taxpayer loot into the pockets of the S.J. Mayor and Council.

    Unlike San Jose’s Commissioners, Santa Clara’s Commissioners represent all city residents, not just the Mayor and City Council.

    Finally, there hasn’t been a time in recent memory where no candidates have run for open seats on the Council, or for Mayor. Therefore, the current pay is ipso facto sufficient. If/when no candidate(s) can be found to run for an open seat, that may be the time to revisit the Mayor and Council’s compensation.

    The Santa Clara Salary Setting Commission serves the residents of their city rather than the electeds, who constantly come and go. What better committee to determine the compensation paid to a city manager — if one is hired to replace Ms. Santana.

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