SANTA CLARA — Former city attorney Brian Doyle, a fierce critic of the San Francisco 49ers’ management of Levi’s Stadium, is suing the city two years after his firing, contending the Santa Clara City Council terminated him unlawfully and in retaliation for whistleblowing.
The city and the NFL team were locked in several legal battles during Doyle’s four-year tenure, and his lawsuit said he sought “to hold the San Francisco 49ers to account” — well before the political makeup of the council began to shift.
Doyle said he first became skeptical of the City Council’s motives regarding the NFL team ahead of a Dec. 8, 2020, council meeting in which Councilmember Raj Chahal had requested a closed-door meeting to discuss a lawsuit involving the California Voting Rights Act and a proposed change in electing city councilmembers.
The request to put it on the Dec. 8 agenda was denied, prompting Chahal to ask for it to be placed on the Dec. 15 agenda, which strengthened Doyle’s belief that there was a “quid pro quo” agreement among five councilmembers and third parties acting on behalf of the 49ers ownership, the lawsuit said.
“The agreement was to form an alliance of candidates who would take official action on behalf of the city to favor the 49ers financially at the expense of the city, including among other things the favorable settlement of lawsuits against the city by the 49ers, in exchange for millions of dollars of purportedly ‘independent’ campaign expenditures,” according to the lawsuit filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Aug. 30.
During the 2020 election, 49ers owner Jed York poured more than $3 million into Santa Clara elections.
When Doyle asked Chahal at a public meeting what he wanted to discuss in closed session, he said Chahal initially “refused to specify a topic and remained circumspect,” according to the lawsuit. Chahal later stated that the closed session could include a potential dismissal of a lawsuit that had been filed in 2017 by five Asian American residents who claimed the city’s previous process of electing councilmembers in at-large elections instead of district-based ones diluted the votes of minorities in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. At the time of filing, no Asian American had been elected to the council since the city adopted its charter in 1951.
Doyle said a vote to dismiss the lawsuit before a scheduled Dec. 17 appeals court oral arguments could lead to criminal prosecution of those who had a conflict of interest, and because he wasn’t clear on what the closed session meeting was about, he declined to participate in it — a decision that Chahal said was “avoiding his duty” as city attorney.
The lawsuit was eventually settled in 2021 after the city spent $6 million fighting it over the course of four years — a cost many of the advocates of the change blamed on Doyle.
In April 2021, two councilmembers said at a council meeting that a 49ers lobbyist expressed concerns with Doyle and wanted him gone. According to the lawsuit, councilmembers attempted to meet in closed session meeting to terminate him before they were alerted that Doyle was entitled to an annual review — which had yet to occur in 2021. Doyle’s contract also had a provision that he couldn’t be fired by the council within 90 days of new members being sworn in; the 90 days expired on March 8, 2021.
Lawyer Brian Doyle in San Jose on Friday, September 10, 2004. (Bay Area News Group Archive)
The city hired an outside consultant to conduct the review, Doyle submitted a self-evaluation of his work, and several closed-session meetings were held to discuss the evaluation. Then three new councilmembers — Anthony Becker, Kevin Park and Suds Jain — requested a closed-session meeting to discuss the firing of a city employee. Doyle was fired effective Sept. 2 by a vote of 5-2. Two Doyle allies — Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Councilmember Kathy Watanabe — cast the dissenting votes.
“The evaluation process revealed itself to be a sham and pre-textual cover-up for the retaliatory termination of Plaintiff,” Doyle’s lawsuit said.
Doyle’s lawsuit said he struggled to find work nearly two years because of the council’s “public treatment” and firing. He said he was hired as interim city attorney in Merced in June but makes less money and is far from his family in Santa Clara, according to the lawsuit. Doyle was paid $332,796 in 2021.
A spokesperson for Santa Clara declined to comment, and Doyle’s attorney did not return a request for comment. Chahal declined to comment.
Former City Manager Deanna Santana — another adversary of the 49ers — was fired six months after Doyle, with the council majority citing a “lack of confidence” in her ability to do her job. Santana, who in 2020 was the second highest paid city manager in California, earning $765,152 in salary and benefits, will receive her six-figure salary for a year after her termination as severance in exchange for waiving her right to sue.
Santa Clara has since hired new city administrators, appointing Glen Googins as city attorney in January and Jovan Grogan as city manager in February.