Gender Discrimination, Retaliation Alleged Against City of Santa Barbara

Former City Hall Staffer and City Council Candidate Nina Johnson Sues City

Nina Johnson | Credit: Courtesy

Nina Johnson, a high-profile player within the Santa Barbara City Administrator’s office for 25 years and a City Council candidate two years ago, has filed a gender- and race-based discrimination lawsuit against City Hall. 

In the lawsuit, Johnson claims she experienced retaliation and “blacklisting” when she notified her superiors that her job title and pay did not reflect either her leadership role within the organization or actual job responsibilities. Instead of being reclassified as she sought, Johnson charged in legal papers, her superiors removed half of Johnson’s work responsibilities, added new positions in her office, and hired someone else — Matt Fore — to handle supervisory and leadership responsibilities that she formerly did. (Fore has since taken a higher position with the City of Goleta.) In addition, Johnson charged she’d been paid less than her predecessor, who she noted was neither a woman nor of Asian origin. 

In response to speaking up, Johnson charged, she was cut out of work processes she formerly led, was denied access to clerical staff, given low-level duties, and instructed to report to a manager as opposed to the City Administrator and Assistant City Administrator as she had for years. Motivating this change, Johnson charged, was her gender and ethnicity as an Asian American.

Johnson worked for the City of Santa Barbara from 1998 to 2022, playing a high-visibility role as interface between City Hall and the business community and an advocate for the arts as a vehicle of economic rejuvenation. Two years ago, Johnson ran for the City Council’s downtown district against incumbent Meagan Harmon and enjoyed generous financial support from the downtown business community. Harmon won that contest — a four-way race — decisively. 

Johnson is the first City Hall staff member to seek election in memory and took time off to pursue the campaign. When she sought to return to her job after losing, Johnson charged, her remaining duties had been farmed out to other employees. 

Johnson is claiming that the initial discrimination and the retaliation she’d endured since bringing it to the attention of higher-ups in 2016 has cost her both financially and emotionally. Johnson currently works for UCSB’s Arts & Lectures program.  

City Attorney Sarah Knecht stated that City Hall takes Johnson’s allegation “very seriously and with the utmost concern,” but upon review found them to be “without merit.” Knecht added Johnson “has been thoroughly supported by the City” and was allowed to take a leave of absence to run for the council two years ago.


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