49ers’ dozens of closed meetings with Santa Clara council members draw scrutiny


As Santa Clara officials maneuvered to defend the city in multiple legal disputes with the 49ers this year over operation of Levi’s Stadium, five of seven City Council members took the unusual step of regularly meeting with team executives behind closed doors, public records show.

In a span of eight-plus months, from late January through the end of September, 49ers officials held 57 meetings — about one every four days — with council members who have supported the team’s position on city-related issues, according to public records.

That includes Sudhanshu “Suds” Jain, Anthony Becker and Kevin Park, who were elected last year with the help of nearly $3 million in political contributions from 49ers CEO Jed York.

Jain met most often with team officials — 32 times in all, including five times during one week in March, according to a Chronicle review of council members’ calendars, which are filed with the city. The meetings began Jan. 26, the records show, when Jain, Becker and Park, each of whom took office that month, met with 49ers public affairs chief Rahul Chandhok.

Six days earlier, then-Santa Clara City Attorney Brian Doyle had updated the council on the legal tussles with the 49ers. The morning after that confidential closed session, Jain sent a text message to Chandhok seeking a meeting, records show.

“Hi Rahul, yesterday new Councilmembers got the city’s side of all our lawsuits,” Jain wrote. “I know (49ers executive) Larry McNeill (sic) gave me a pretty good briefing but now I would like to meet again to reconcile the different stories. This is my city issued cellphone. Suds.”

Public officials are barred from disclosing confidential information learned in a closed legislative session, according to state law and three experts on municipal government.

Jain acknowledged the meeting, saying it allowed him to get the 49ers’ “side of the story” regarding the lawsuits. He denied discussing what he had just learned about the litigation in closed session.

“No, I don’t reveal,” he said in a phone interview last week. “I didn’t say, ‘This is what the city told me.’ I told them, ‘You tell me about police services (one of many issues at play in the lawsuits).’ I don’t reveal stuff from closed sessions with the city.”

Jain said he meets with the team “every week, on Mondays.” Asked whether his meetings could undercut the city’s legal position in the lawsuits, he said, “I don’t believe so.”

In September, Jain was among five council members who voted to fire Doyle. “Suds values the opinion of the 49ers over the staff’s expert opinions regarding protecting our city’s interest,” Council Member Kathy Watanabe asserted.

Park also acknowledged the Jan. 26 meeting, describing how the council members “discussed the issues brought to us by city staff” with team officials.

“We tried to corroborate and ask questions where things were unclear or different,” Park said. “We never discuss information we’re not supposed to … including with the 49ers. We have no special relationship with the 49ers. They are another business entity.”

But critics of the 49ers, who believe the franchise has mismanaged the stadium and failed to properly share revenue from games and other events, say the communications suggest city officials are not focused on protecting the interests of their constituents over the team’s financial interests.

“I have asked these council members to disclose any information they share with the 49ers in their multiple meetings, or any deals they’re making in these meetings, and they’ve refused to do so,” said Mayor Lisa Gillmor, a frequent 49ers critic. “I am highly disappointed these elected officials have breached the trust of our community, and are putting special interests before the public and our taxpayers.”

Doyle had expressed similar concerns before the council, fueled by the votes of the five members who regularly meet with the 49ers, fired him Sept. 1. Doyle said he feared team executives were seeking to gain leverage in the lawsuits over the stadium.

Doyle confronted 49ers Vice President Jim Mercurio and two other team executives about the private meetings in April, two days after Jain revealed in a public meeting that the 49ers wanted the city attorney “gone.” Doyle accused the team of interfering in city affairs.

In a Zoom meeting, Doyle charged that the team hoped to install a “marshmallow” city attorney “who will hand you a sweetheart settlement” of the team’s lawsuits.

“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,” Doyle said.

UC Hastings law professor Dave Owen, an expert in local government not involved in the dispute in Santa Clara, said the episode raised “the question of whether most constituents would want their City Council members to have private meetings with corporations with interests opposed to those of the city, and then follow up those meetings by trying to advance the corporation’s interests.”

The disputes have mushroomed since the 2014 opening of $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium, which was supposed to produce robust revenue streams shared by the city and 49ers. Instead, the relationship has devolved into back-and-forth allegations of misconduct and broken promises.

The city’s Stadium Authority owns Levi’s but leases the facility to the 49ers, who run it through their Forty Niners Stadium Management Co. That company makes financial reports to the city so they can split profits, which the city deploys to pay off bonds used to build the stadium.

Now the Stadium Authority is seeking to terminate the 49ers’ management contract and install professional managers to run the facility. The team sued to stop the move, and the case is awaiting trial.

Jain was not the only council member to routinely attend meetings with 49ers executives outside of public view, records show. Becker attended meetings 19 times, followed by Karen Hardy (18), Park (15) and Raj Chahal (13). All five members who met with the team voted to oust Doyle; Gillmor and Watanabe voted to keep him.

Chandhok, the 49ers’ executive vice president of public affairs and strategic communications, was present at 54 of the 57 meetings. Larry MacNeil, compliance manager for Levi’s Stadium and formerly the team’s chief financial officer, attended 37 times.

“Any assertion that council members shared confidential closed session information with the 49ers is a lie, and the accusation that they violated their oath of office is insulting to the council and Santa Clarans who elected the most diverse council in the City’s history,” Chandhok said in a statement emailed to The Chronicle.

“The stadium is one of the city’s largest assets, and members of the City Council meet regularly with the 49ers to discuss upcoming events, operational issues, and resolving petty political disputes.”

Doyle briefed council members about the city’s litigation with the 49ers on Jan. 19. There are 10 different cases, including the lawsuit challenging the city’s move to terminate the team’s management of Levi’s Stadium.

For the new council members elected with 49ers backing — Jain, Becker and Park — this was their first inside look at the city’s legal strategy. The council meeting ended about 9 p.m. Jain sent his text to Chandhok seeking to “reconcile the different stories” the next day at 10:02 a.m.

Six days later, on Jan. 26, Jain met with Chandhok to discuss what the council member called “stadium operations,” according to a calendar he filed with the city. Becker and Park also attended the meeting.

If Jain told Chandhok what he learned in the closed council meeting, he broke the law and committed “a serious violation of the public trust,” said Quentin Kopp, a former San Francisco supervisor, state senator and judge. As a senator, Kopp co-authored a 1992 overhaul of the Brown Act, the state open-meetings law that also imposes confidentiality upon closed legislative sessions.

Kopp said the confidentiality law was intended to protect the “litigation strategy” of a public agency involved in a lawsuit. Apprising the 49ers of the city’s legal strategy, he said, “would subvert the position in court of the city of Santa Clara.”

Bruce Budner, a veteran trial lawyer who teaches legal ethics at Berkeley Law, called Jain’s text “seriously problematic.” Jessica Levinson, director of the Public Service Institute at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, described the scenario as “stunning.”

“Why would you put it in a text?” Levinson said. “People are rarely this flagrant.”

According to state law, a public official found to have made such disclosures can be ordered by a court not to continue to do so in the future, can be referred to a grand jury proceeding and can face possible removal from office.

Jain, a retired electrical engineer and former commissioner and chair of the Santa Clara Planning Commission, won the District Five council election in November 2020, after losing his bid for the same seat four years earlier. His exchange with Chandhok was included in public records posted Sept. 27 on the city’s website.

Chandok and Jas Sajjan, his assistant, usually attended the meetings with City Council members. MacNeil and 49ers Vice President of Finance Jeff Fong also were present sometimes, records show.

The meetings never included more than three council members. If a quorum of four were present, state law would have required the meetings to be held in public. On several occasions, Chandhok and other 49ers executives met with Hardy and Chahal at 3:30 p.m. Then the same team officials met with Jain, Becker and Park at 5 p.m.

In calendar entries, council members often characterized their meetings with the 49ers as being about “stadium operations,” with no detail.

Some calendar entries, though, offered slightly more detail, suggesting Jain, Becker and Park at times met with Chandhok and other 49ers executives to discuss subjects central to the city’s legal conflicts with the team.

On March 16, the council met in closed session for more than two hours to confer with the city’s lawyers on four legal disputes with the 49ers, including the lawsuit concerning the city’s move to terminate the 49ers from managing operations at Levi’s Stadium.

Six days later, the three council members met with 49ers officials, including Chandhok. Jain reported that meeting topics included “Nex wage theft issue” and “Levi’s signage.”

NEx Systems is a flooring company that the 49ers paid $644,000 for work at the stadium. The city has accused the 49ers of violating state prevailing wage laws by underpaying workers on the project, and cited the issue as a reason for terminating the management contract. The 49ers denied wrongdoing.

“Levi’s signage” may refer to another sticking point in the lawsuit: The city has accused the 49ers of wrongly diverting $800,000 in revenue from the Redbox Bowl college football games played at Levi’s Stadium in 2018 and 2019. The 49ers denied wrongdoing, saying the team was entitled to the money to pay for “signage” at Levi’s Stadium promoting the game.

Four other meetings in July and September addressed the costs of police services at games. The 49ers have taken the city to arbitration on the issue, claiming the city has underpaid public safety costs by $1.7 million.

On Sept. 27, Jain reported that he and Becker met with the 49ers on topics including “buffet costs.” In another dispute that is in arbitration, the team claims the city should be required to pay $4 million for gourmet buffet service for season-ticket holders.

Also in September, Council Member Hardy reported that she and Council Member Chahal met with the 49ers to discuss “points of agreement and disagreement.”

Ron Kroichick is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer and Lance Williams is a freelance writer. Email: [email protected], [email protected] Twitter: @ronkroichick, @LanceWCIR