Some of Jean Quan’s opponents in this year’s mayoral election will likely view City Administrator Deanna Santana’s departure from City Hall this week as yet another reason to criticize the mayor. But once Santana started to publicly search for positions in other cities late last year, it became clear that she was no longer invested in Oakland and was not the right person to be running the day-to-day operations of the city. Moreover, her replacement, Fred Blackwell, is far better suited for Oakland and its residents, especially for progressives and sports fans.
A native son, Blackwell has been leading the city’s efforts over the past two years to keep its professional sports teams from leaving town. As assistant city administrator, he has been the point person on the Coliseum City project, which would feature a new privately financed stadium for the Oakland Raiders. And he has worked behind the scenes to help pave the way for a possible new ballpark for the A’s at Howard Terminal along the city’s waterfront. He also played a pivotal role in the launch of the $500 million Oakland Army Base redevelopment project. Before Santana hired Blackwell at Quan’s request in 2011, he led San Francisco’s redevelopment agency.
A progressive with strong ties to Oakland’s African-American community, Blackwell also is much more liberal than the moderate Santana. As city administrator, he’s expected to push for more affordable housing and other services and programs for low-income residents. And unlike Santana, Blackwell is a consensus-builder who is well liked throughout City Hall. “He has a good way with people,” Quan told me on Monday. “Employees like him and will follow him.”
Quan said she expects that Blackwell will quickly fill several city department head positions that have been vacant. The mayor and city administrator also will likely make a decision soon on whether to hire a new police chief or appoint Interim Chief Sean Whent to the job permanently. The mayor, however, declined to comment about the specifics of Santana’s departure, although she acknowledged it was not unexpected.
Santana was a favorite among moderates because of her attempts to limit public-employee compensation and her push to crack down on Occupy Oakland in 2011. Santana also won praise from good government advocates — including from me — when she publicly called out Councilmember Desley Brooks for apparently violating the city’s separation-of-powers law.
But Santana also made numerous questionable decisions during her two and a half years on the job. First, she attempted to alter a damning report on the police department’s response to Occupy Oakland. Then she made an unsubstantiated claim that independent police monitor Robert Warshaw had made inappropriate advances toward her. Federal Judge Thelton Henderson effectively dismissed her allegations as being unfounded, and then last month appointed Warshaw to take over as OPD’s compliance director, effectively giving him more powers over OPD than her.
Looking back, it seems clear now that Santana had been missing in action for quite some time and was no longer keeping close tabs on what was happening in the city. Internal documents revealed that city staffers under her command last year had allowed employees of Oakland’s mass surveillance contractor to perjure themselves under oath when they claimed that the company wasn’t involved in nuclear weapons work when it was. And it was city staffers working for her who revealed that the real purpose of the $11 million surveillance center was not to help police fight crime, but to keep an eye on political demonstrators.
Santana also had become deeply unpopular inside City Hall. The city’s labor unions — except for the police union — couldn’t stand working with her, and many city staffers chafed under her command. She also failed to fill several top vacancies, leaving the city short-handed.
Quan, in fact, should have fired Santana last fall when she openly applied to become Dallas’ city manager and then sought the same job in Phoenix. Not only had Santana effectively declared that she was no longer interested in Oakland, she had created an apparent conflict of interest: She hired the same headhunter who was running the Dallas and Phoenix city manager job search to also conduct Oakland’s recruitment of a new police chief. Not surprisingly, that headhunter, Bob Murray, then recommended Santana for both the Dallas and Phoenix positions.
City Hall sources said the mayor had hoped that Santana would go to Dallas or Phoenix so that she wouldn’t have to fire her and pay her a hefty severance package. And while that may have been a prudent fiscal move, the mayor’s decision to let Santana leak her departure from City Hall to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson was a political mistake. It allowed Santana to spin the message, and gave the mayor’s opponents more ammunition against her. In truth, the mayor was just as anxious for Santana to leave as Santana was. In fact, the Oakland Tribune subsequently reported that it was Quan’s decision to let her go.
Still, any criticism Quan may receive from Santana’s exit could prove to be short-lived — if Blackwell fulfills his promise of making people forget about the person he replaced.