Q: You publicly said a few years ago that you believe Santa Clara is headed for corruption like the City of Bell. Do you still believe that?
A: The corruption or the appearance of corruption in Santa Clara already puts the City in the running for this decade’s most corrupt local government. If City ethics continues on the downward slope, they’ve been on for the last few years, Santa Clara will make Bell’s corrupt Senior City staff and Council look like amateurs. In Bell, high-ranking officials received exorbitant salaries and faced legal consequences, including jail time and restitution.
When city council members take their oath of office, they commit to a fiduciary duty to prioritize the people’s needs above all else. This duty comes with strict legal and ethical obligations.
Corruption is the use of Council power for anything other than serving the people’s best interests.
In many respects it’s more corrupt than Bell. The Santa Clara City Council majority frequently uses its power to advance personal or team agendas, to secure more power, and to punish enemies; they never ask whether these decisions are ethically right, truly benefit the community, or build public trust. Actions such as attacking critics, refusing accountability, pursuing political vendettas, fabricating facts to support opinions, and blindly following requests from entities like the 49ers without conducting due diligence are frequent and do not serve the public’s best interests. The Council may follow the minimum standards of the law, but they regularly violate their duty to build public trust.
Q: Do you think the 2020 Civil Grand Jury that said the 49er Five are selling out Santa Clara residents to help the team had any impact?
A: In the past, we were able to study ethical leadership and ethically-neutral leadership (a leader who never talks about ethics; takes the short-term view; and puts the organization at risk). We couldn’t study unethical leadership because unethical leaders were not around long-enough to study. Unsportsmanlike Conduct tells the extraordinary story of what happens when a Council majority ignores ethics and trashes public trust because they have the votes to do whatever they please, have abandoned whatever moral compasses they may have had, and they face no effective or timely checks and balances to alter their behavior.
The report did not change Council majority behavior for the better. Today, they are less transparent, independent, and accountable than they were. The people, however, learned a great deal from the report and even more from the unscrupulous attacks the Santa Clara City Council and the San Francisco 49ers launched against the Grand Jury and individual Grand Jury members. In Santa Clara politics today “nothing is despicable” and “crush the critic” are now standard operating procedure.
This Council violates the Code of Ethics & Values at every meeting. It gets away with it because the vast majority of the 127,000 residents do not know what is going on, how often it is occurring, or what, exactly, they can or should do about it.
But any decision about public action begins with the people being informed.
Q: What role do you believe the media has played in what’s happening in Santa Clara today with ethics or possible corruption?
A: The local media have contributed significantly to the lack of ethics, transparency, information, and trust in Santa Clara. In addition to my ethics training, I taught media and communications at Santa Clara University for over 25 years, so I pay close attention to how media shapes what we think about local government and how much we trust it.
With the exception of the San Francisco Chronicle, other local publications have completely missed stories of unethical behavior and corruption, slant the news to support 49ers talking points, mix opinion with fact, destroy their own credibility, and further damage public trust.
I trust the Chronicle as the paper of record for Santa Clara Ethics Stories and know that Santa Clara News Online will report negative news about the Council accurately. I know that San Jose Spotlight is a go-to friend of the 49ers and Silicon Valley Voice is an echo chamber and ally of the current Council, and willingly uses its news coverage to do the Council’s dirty work.
I am now studying and documenting how the 49ers have developed relationships and established ties with publishers, editors,and some writers. We learned a great deal about this in the testimony that led to CM [Anthony] Becker’s indictment for perjury. There’s more to the story.
In some ways the 49ers are a textbook example of how wealthy corporations hijack local politics, influence coverage, turn newspapers into lobbyists or PR channels, weaken democracy, and further damage public trust. Let the reader beware is my first piece of advice.
Q: How do you think the City is handling the gathering of information about the 2026 World Cup and FIFA documents?
A: I’m stunned that the City doesn’t have key documents that the City Council and the public need to determine any potential costs of the games. Other cities have information online.
I’m really disappointed that City staff doesn’t appear to be doing its duty and acting on behalf of the residents to obtain this information. It’s been months since City Manager Jovan Grogan and City Attorney Glen Googins were directed by the City Council to get the documents. This was also a major recommendation of the Civil Grand Jury.
The City Staff has redacted documents and kept key information from the public, including who signed the bid documents. Now the City Staff wants the City to enter into an information sharing agreement that looks like a system to hide more information.
That isn’t a transparent or ethical approach. This is not how the City should operate if you care about public trust and are dedicated to serving the people’s best interests. It also raises serious questions about the ethical leadership the City Manager and City Attorney are providing for City staff. Ethical leadership from the top is the single-most important reason City staffs act ethically.
We will be watching closely on October 26 when Mr. Googins conducts the first City ethics training in years and we will continue to monitor the City Manager’s ethical leadership. .
Q: I hear that you are working on some new ethics projects. What are they and will they be focused at all on Santa Clara?
A: Yes, I’m really focused on Santa Clara because I think we are seeing in real time the growing corruption of a community on a variety of levels: political, government, and media. I want to document Santa Clara as an academic case study because other communities, students, elected leaders, and City staffs everywhere can learn a lot from Santa Clara about building, destroying, and rebuilding public trust.
But I also want to engage the public in a meaningful way so that individuals in this community can learn and take effective action. I’ll be announcing some initiatives soon.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Tom Shanks is a nationally recognized ethicist and the former director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.