OAKLAND -- City Administrator Deanna Santana is a finalist to become city manager of Dallas, prompting Oakland officials to brace for a potentially destabilizing departure in a city that has recently lost several top officials and is searching for its third police chief in less than a year.
Santana, 43, who took the reins in Oakland two years ago after a long career with the city of San Jose, is among five finalists for the Dallas job. The field is expected to be pared down next month before a final decision is made.
Santana said she was asked to apply for the job and is exploring her options after turning down prior offers. "I enjoy a wonderful career in the city of Oakland, but given where we're at, it's a good time to explore the opportunities available to me," said.
Santana's boss, Mayor Jean Quan, faces a tough re-election campaign next year. Although Santana's contract runs through 2015, there is no guarantee that she would be asked to stay if Quan is defeated or stick around if the mayor wins a second term.
Quan released a statement touting their work together. "I knew when I hired Deanna that if she did well, bigger cities would take notice," she said. The mayor refused to speculate on potential replacements.
Running Oakland is a notoriously demanding job that has become more difficult after several waves of staffing cuts during the financial crisis.
One of Santana's top deputies, Scott Johnson, recently took a lower paying job in Concord. Several of her senior staffers are temporarily running multiple departments as Oakland looks to replenish its ranks. The city is still searching for permanent leaders in the police, public works and IT departments as well as the library.
"Oakland would be extremely challenged with Deanna leaving," Councilman Noel Gallo said. "The City Council needs to step up and provide leadership so we can attract qualified people to come to Oakland."
With a competitive mayor's race on the horizon, many at City Hall anticipate that Quan would hire from within, most likely turning to Santana's second in command, Fred Blackwell, to run the city's day-to-day operations. Santana gave Blackwell, an Oakland native, a ringing endorsement Thursday, saying he would do well at any endeavor.
Santana won accolades upon arriving in Oakland. She was praised for taking decisive action during the 2011 Occupy protests, providing an honest accounting of Oakland's long-term budget shortfall and confronting the city's culture of allowing politicians to boss around staffers.
Her fortunes turned in her second year on the job when it was disclosed that she had accused the city's federal police monitor of sexual harassment. The federal judge overseeing the department refused to dismiss the monitor.
Santana remains generally popular with her senior staff and good-government advocates.
But she angered the city's biggest union during contract negotiations this year and several of longtime supporters of Quan, who say that Santana is too controlling and not progressive enough for the city.
Quan and Santana have not seen eye-to-eye on several issues, but Santana insisted they have a good working relationship that might not come to an end anytime soon.
"We are two strong characters that have good opinions and good perspectives," she said. "The city of Oakland is always open to debate and different points of view."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435