Reprint San Francisco Chronicle: Lance Williams, Ron Kroichick Aug. 27, 2021Updated: Aug. 27, 2021 7:49 p.m.
Three Santa Clara City Council members, who were elected last year after 49ers Chief Executive Officer Jed York spent $2.9 million in that campaign, made a request Friday for a closed-door meeting to discuss firing an unidentified city employee.
Mayor Lisa Gillmor told The Chronicle she believes the targeted employee is City Attorney Brian Doyle, who is defending the city against eight legal actions brought by the NFL team. One councilman said at a public meeting in April that team executives told him they wanted Doyle dismissed.
Since he was hired in 2017, the blunt-spoken Doyle repeatedly has clashed with the 49ers, accusing the team of concealing financial information about Levi’s Stadium and withholding millions in revenue that the city argues should have been shared with taxpayers. He also has complained that 49ers executives violated conflict-of-interest laws on stadium contracts. Doyle earns about $390,000 per year.
Gillmor, a longtime 49ers critic, said she was distressed by Friday’s move, calling Doyle the city’s “No. 1 line of defense” in financial disputes with the team.
“The 49ers appear to believe that by removing the city attorney they can avoid oversight of the stadium, and avoid any court decisions that will not be in their favor,” Gillmor said. “Consequences could be dire for them. They need to get out of court, and quickly.”
The special closed council meeting is likely to be held Wednesday. City Council members Anthony Becker, Kevin Park and Sudhanshu “Suds” Jain filed Friday’s request for the meeting, joined by vice mayor Raj Chahal to reach a majority.
The team manages the publicly owned stadium under contract with the city’s Stadium Authority. The city has moved to terminate that management agreement, citing a long list of alleged financial irregularities and years of losses on concerts and college football games booked at the venue.
The 49ers have denied wrongdoing and have sued for the right to continue managing the stadium. They blamed revenue shortfalls at the stadium on the city’s 10 p.m. weeknight curfew on events and on meddling by Gillmor and city staff.
A move to fire Doyle has been anticipated since April, when Jain, one of five members seen to favor the 49ers now on the council, disclosed he had privately discussed the city attorney with club executives and they “would like to see Brian Doyle gone.”
The other council members who favor the 49ers also have met privately with club executives and discussed stadium issues, city records show.
Doyle was angered by Jain’s disclosure. Two days later, Doyle confronted 49ers vice president Jim Mercurio and two other club executives during a Zoom meeting.
Reading from a written statement, Doyle accused the 49ers of plotting to replace him with a “marshmallow” city attorney “who will hand you a sweetheart settlement” of the lawsuits the team had filed.
“No doubt the voting public would find it odd that elected officials would consult with the people who are suing the city over millions of dollars about who the city attorney should be,” he said.
Doyle asked whether the 49ers planned to “orchestrate a smear campaign” against him to give the more 49er-friendly council political cover for firing him, and referred to York as a “thug,” records show.
The 49ers said they were outraged. Team attorney Hannah Gordon fired off an email to city manager Deanna Santana contending Doyle’s “tirade” had been “wild, unstable and suggestive of violence.” She said team officials would no longer meet with Doyle.
Councilwoman Kathy Watanabe, who often joins Gillmor in criticizing the 49ers, said firing Doyle would be a big mistake.
The 49ers don’t like Doyle because “he stands up to them with all of their lawsuits,” Watanabe said in a phone interview. “They are not happy because they are not getting their way.”
Councilmen Becker and Park refused to comment Friday, and Chahal did not immediately respond to a voicemail. Jain also declined to comment, and he said his earlier remarks about the 49ers wanting to fire Doyle were “irrelevant.”
Doyle said as city attorney he has been “faithful to the city and the city’s interests.”
Doyle’s firing would have no immediate effect on the city’s legal defense because a San Francisco law firm, Hanson Bridgett, is handling courtroom work in the lawsuits. But records show the 49ers recently moved to cut $2 million from the Stadium Authority’s litigation budget, which funds legal defense in the disputes with the team.
Santa Clara lobbied hard to lure the 49ers from San Francisco, and in 2010 voters overwhelmingly passed a measure to build a $1.3 billion stadium for them near the Great America amusement park. The city contributed an estimated $114 million in taxpayer funds to the project, and the stadium opened in 2014.
Since then, town-team relations have deteriorated, mostly because of disputes over stadium finances.
For a time, critics of the football team, led by Gillmor, dominated the seven-member council. Then York poured $2.9 million into an independent expenditure campaign in the 2020 council election — a huge sum in a city where incumbents typically spend perhaps $30,000 on a campaign.
By law, political donors can spend an unlimited amount on independent expenditure campaigns, provided they do not coordinate their spending with the candidates they support.
The money paid for a hard-edged television and web advertising barrage that portrayed Gillmor’s council allies as inflexible and hostile to accommodating what should be a mutually profitable relationship with the NFL campaign. Gillmor herself wasn’t on the ballot.
Three of the four candidates backed by the 49ers were elected, creating a team-friendly majority.