49ers Loom Large in Election of Santa Clara's Police Chief

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Police secure Levi's Stadium during a game in January 2015.

Across the Bay Area this year, police departments have been rocked by allegations of officer misconduct, and several police chiefs have lost their jobs.

But in Santa Clara -- the only city in California to elect its police chief -- there's a different kind of controversy.

The race between incumbent Police Chief Mike Sellers and Sgt. Pat Nikolai, longtime president of the Santa Clara Police Officers' Association, is hinging on the city's new Levi's Stadium and the power and money of the 49ers.

Julie Kenrow, who has lived in Santa Clara's historic district for 16 years, said the police are overwhelmed by the 49ers because of all the security needed at Levi's Stadium for games and special events.

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"I was never for the stadium," said Kenrow. "I just didn't think Santa Clara was the right fit for the team, because I think we're too small for that club and we got kind of bulldozed."

Before Levi's opened in 2014, Santa Clara voters tried not to be bulldozed.

They approved Measure J, prohibiting the use of their tax money for stadium operations, including policing. The 49ers are required to pay $170,000 for public safety costs per game at Levi's, according to the terms of the team's lease. The problem? Security costs have consistently run over.

Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor said some of the security cost overruns are being billed to the city's general fund, eating up taxpayer money.

"It's my understanding it's still going on," Gillmor said. "We have to stop the bleeding now. We have to stop it because I've heard from police officers and firefighters that it's still happening in Santa Clara."

Gillmor said Sellers, who was elected chief in 2012 before the stadium opened, has failed to pressure the 49ers for more money when the team's management wants more cops to deal with parking lot brawls. She is supporting Nikolai for police chief.

"We can't have a private business, which the 49ers are, making public safety decisions for our city," Gillmor said.

But Sellers says it's unfair to blame him for the city leaders' decision to cap the amount of money the 49ers must pay; he wasn't even chief at the time. Sellers thinks the 49ers should be responsible for all security costs. After all, he said, the city and team are in a long-term lease, and they have to get along.

Santa Clara Police Chief Mike Sellers campaigns in front of Levi's Stadium.
Santa Clara Police Chief Mike Sellers campaigns in front of Levi's Stadium. (Beth Willon/KQED)

"We cannot get a divorce after two years, two and a half, three years," Sellers said. "We've got 40 years here, and we've got to make it work."

But rival Nikolai said Sellers hasn't been tough enough.

"I think he could have stepped up a long time ago and gotten more money from the 49ers. He did nothing," Nikolai said. "He just kept working under the assumption that what the 49ers were paying was good enough, and that's not acceptable."

Sergeant Pat Nikolai gets Julie Kenrow's vote telling her the 49'ers will pay for all security.
Santa Clara police Sgt. Pat Nikolai gets Julie Kenrow's vote telling her the 49ers will pay for all security. (Beth Willon/KQED)

Nikolai said he looks at the 49ers strictly as a business.

"They're in the business of making money, and they're doing a very good job of that," Nikolai said.

The 49ers issued a statement that said: "The Stadium Authority is structured so that the City of Santa Clara is not liable for the debts or obligations of the Stadium Authority. All services provided by the City to the Stadium Manager or Stadium Authority are fully reimbursed. The public safety costs are tracked by the City, per event, and invoices are sent to the Stadium Manager once costs are known. The 49ers have paid all invoices from the City upon receipt."

The Stadium Authority's board is comprised of the seven members of the Santa Clara City Council.

Sellers said allegations that he is not tough enough with the 49ers are politically motivated.

An audit ordered by Gillmor found that the city has used public money to pay for operations at Levi's Stadium, which is in violation of Measure J. The audit will reveal the amount of money used by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, voter Julie Kenrow says she wants the public's money going to parks and other city programs in Santa Clara.

"We live in Santa Clara because it's sort of a small town. We love this neighborhood because it's quaint with a neighborhood feel," Kenrow said.

The 49ers and Levi's Stadium, she said, have taken some of that feeling away.