A federal jury validated a former Oakland employee relations director’s story of her city’s snakepit City Hall politics and awarded the whistleblower $613,302 for being unfairly fired.
Daryelle LaWanna Preston sued the city in 2014, claiming her supervisor, then-City Administrator Deanna Santana, retalitated against her for speaking out in contradiction of her boss on a union issue and on an action taken against a city council member. She alleged the city violated her First Amendment free speech rights and California law protecting whistleblowers.
Preston got into trouble over the city-owned Rainbow Teen Center, managed by Councilwoman Desley Brooks. Her lawsuit alleged that Santana pressured her in 2012 to approve a report that said Brooks had “intentionally” approved illegal hiring practices at the center and “signed off improperly on equipment receipts.”
Preston refused to sign the report and allegedly told Santana she thought the allegations were racially motivated against Brooks, who is African-American. At a March 2012 city council meeting, Santana asked Preston to confirm that Brooks had been at a key meeting about the center. But she publicly contradicted her boss, and said that their relationship turned to ice afterward.
A year later, Preston had a run-in with Santana over union contracts the city was entering into without approval of the city council. Preston, the city’s chief employment negotiator, alleged that Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed bargained with firefighters union Local 55, although she lacked the authority to do so.
Preston said she had many “unpleasant conversations” with Santana over the issue and she was disinvited from a closed-session council meeting at which the agreement was ratified.
A month later, another union local found out that the city had failed to collect dues for them from part-time workers for years and filed a grievance. Santana allegedly tried to work a deal with the union to repay the money and drop the grievance, and told Preston to stay quiet about it.
But when asked at a city council meeting about a vague reference to the grievance in some paperwork, Preston responded truthfully about the situation. She was fired two days later and frog-marched out of the place without the customary post-termination nicety of an orderly disengagement.
City Attorney Barbara Parker said she respects the jury’s decision but they were dead wrong:
“Plaintiff was an ‘at will’ department head in the City of Oakland. That means the City Administrator could terminate her for any reason or no reason at all and without notice. Plaintiff had the burden of proving that the City terminated her for unlawful reasons. We believe the evidence was clear that the City was fully within its rights to terminate Plaintiff.”
Santana is now the city manager of Sunnyvale and Preston holds a position with San Francisco similar to the one she held in Oakland.