Oakland is a city rich with diversity and resources, but its difficulties are massive and complex and often driven by forces under no one person or group's control.
If her past work is any indication, new City Administrator Deanna Santana is well-suited to the challenge, her colleagues say.
Santana, now Oakland's highest-ranking unelected official, worked the last 12 years in San Jose, most recently as deputy city manager.
San Jose is a much larger municipality than Oakland, has more than twice as many people, and is no stranger to complicated problems. Santana shines in meeting those kinds of problems with determination, intelligence and gentility, said her former boss, San Jose City Manager Debra Figone.
Like Oakland, San Jose has wrestled with deeply entrenched trust issues between its community and its police department. Like Oakland, San Jose is striving to make sense of the medical marijuana industry. In both cases, Figone said, Santana has been a great asset in leading city staff efforts and keeping the city's top decision-makers informed of every important facet of an issue.
"Deanna's great at knowing how to see through the issues and sort them out, understanding political sensitivities, understanding communications issues and dynamics. Sometimes those are easily missed when you're only focused on problems from a technical perspective," Figone said.
After a months-long search, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan announced in June that Santana was Oakland's city administrator. She's tasked with commanding city staffers and reporting to the city council, which relies heavily on that information to make decisions about where the city is going.
Santana, 40, is a Bay Area native. She's married with two children, a 9-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy. She and her family live in Fremont, but she's looking to move near Jack London Square.
And though she was raised in Mountain View and spent the last 12 years working in San Jose government, she's quick to note that she's not new to Oakland -- she's coming back to the city she's loved for decades.
"This isn't just a job," she said. "It's not just a professional opportunity."
No stranger to Oakland
Santana lived in Oakland while she was a student at UC Berkeley, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood. She lived in the hills, near Lake Merritt, North Oakland and a couple areas in East Oakland.
While a student at UC Berkeley, she volunteered at Maxwell Park Elementary School, helping students, and at La Clinica De La Raza, handing out condoms and bleach for cleaning drug needles to people along International Boulevard.
She wrote her master's thesis on an idea for helping Oakland's most disadvantaged residents, based on a model program she discovered in Southern California.
Santana's connection to the city didn't end there. She began her career in government 16 years ago as an intern in Oakland for Lamont Ewell, who's wrapping up a stint as interim city administrator. She also worked in finance for the Oakland Police Department in the mid-1990s under then-chief Joe Samuels.
Now that she's back in Oakland -- she starts her new job Aug. 1 -- Santana said her first priority is making the city fiscally stable. With the City Council having barely closed a $58 million deficit in the eleventh hour of budget talks on June 30, and expecting to face even more dire troubles in the next few years, she said the first task is to establish a strategy for fiscal reform.
The controversial issues, such as contracting out jobs, need to be discussed with the city's stakeholders, Santana said, before she'll push one way or another on them.
"I don't know what the values in the city are, on topics like that," she said, "and it's a values-driven discussion that carries a lot of strong emotions. It's my responsibility to advance the discussion."
At the same time, she said, Santana knows she's going to be a new face to a lot of people, and she's making it a priority to make herself known and available.
"I see a prominent role for the city administrator's office in policing policy," Santana said, explaining that she sees a need to balance community relations with making police feel that their hard work is valued.
"You always hear, about police departments, that they need a 'culture change.' That can cause a lot of fear," Santana said. "But it's possible to find common ground."
For example, she said, many residents in San Jose were furious over a large number of public intoxication arrests of mostly Latinos in downtown.
A close look, Santana said, revealed that San Jose was building a night-life scene downtown while ramping up policing in the area -- putting customers at bars and restaurants in direct conflict with police who only wanted to do their jobs. People were getting prosecuted, and the convictions were ruining lives, making job searches exponentially more difficult.
"We said, 'Let's offer people a deal: You won't be prosecuted until your fifth arrest for public intoxication.' It was completely unorthodox, but it gave people enough chances to self-correct while letting police do their work," Santana said.
It was one of many issues where Santana shined in bringing police and their community together, said San Jose police Chief Chris Moore, who won his job in a two-man race with Oakland's chief, Anthony Batts, in January.
Even in issues that didn't go his way, Moore said, he felt he got more than a fair shake from Santana. In April, San Jose's City Council narrowly approved a plan permitting the city to license 10 medical marijuana dispensaries.
"I didn't agree," Moore said. "I thought we should've gone with a moratorium. But she made sure my voice was heard. It was one of those moments where I may have disagreed with the overall end result, but the process was the way it needed to be."
Santana has a long history working with police, and an old friend in the Oakland department, Lt. Jim Meeks, said he can't wait to see her return. Meeks met Santana when he was promoted to lieutenant in the '90s, when she was a civilian working at the police department. She helped him write a report to explain a problem to the City Council, helping him think of the unanticipated questions he would likely face, and they quickly became friends.
A veteran officer who joined the force in 1982, Meeks said he was about to retire when he heard Santana got the job.
"It's like when President Obama was elected. I said, shoot, forget about moving to the Bahamas, I'm staying here in America!" Meeks said. "She's the light at the end of the tunnel. We're going to get out of whatever we're in, because she'll provide that light."
Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.