Milpitas Fires City Attorney, Opts to Outsource Legal Help

In a 3-2 vote last week, Milpitas City Council ousted longtime City Attorney Mike Ogaz and his entire staff in a move to outsource his replacement.

The June 16 decision—with Councilman Garry Barbadillo and Vice Mayor Carmen Montano on the opposing end—came after a month-long review of the cost of in-house legal services. An ad hoc subcommittee led by council members Debbie Giordano and Marsha Grilli met twice before directing the council to put out a call for bids from outside law firms.

Giordano summoned the three-member panel after Ogaz, during a 2015-16 budget planning session in May, asked for the city to hire a deputy city attorney to add to his two-person staff. The next-year budget already allocated more than $1 million to fund Ogaz, assistant city attorney Johnny Phan and executive assistant Susan Barrett.

In the May 19 budget meeting, Giordano questioned the cost-efficiency of retaining Ogaz as a City Hall staffer. Barbadillo left the dais just before Giordano led Grilli and Mayor Jose Estevez to vote on forming a subcommittee on the matter. Montano voted against forming an ad hoc panel because, she said, it would be unfair to single out the city attorney's office and not the other departments that had also asked for more funding.

In a review spearheaded by City Manager Tom Williams' office, the ad hoc committee determined that Ogaz hadn't done enough work to justify keeping him around.

Ogaz countered that assertion in a May 29 memo showing how Milpitas spends less on its city attorney's office than cities of comparable size, like Mountain View, which employs four full-time attorneys. Ogaz said an outside partner would cost the city upward of $2 million a year—just about double the cost of the existing in-house legal team. In addition, he said, Milpitas' city attorney's office has benefitted from 5,000 hours of volunteer help from paralegals and law student interns since 2009.

"Having a well-funded city attorney's office with full-time employees, similar to Mountain View and Palo Alto, is in the best interest of this growing community," Ogaz wrote in his staff's defense. "We are here on a full-time basis to protect the city's interest by attending meetings, promptly answering legal questions, reviewing and drafting ordinances, resolutions and contracts and, more importantly, to be fully accessible to the public and city staff."

Milpitas previously contracted out legal help to Oakland law firm Meyers Nave Riback Silver and Wilson for more than a decade before hiring Ogaz as city attorney in 2007.

In a report submitted to the June 16 council meeting, Williams said the city opted to form an internal legal team so it didn't have to contract out legal services at all. But under Ogaz's tenure, his team has relied on outside help, which, according to Williams, defeats the purpose.

"The city relies on outside council extensively," Williams wrote. "Over the past eight years, there are only three occasions where in-house legal counsel was used exclusively."

With his firing, Ogaz becomes the latest in a long line of staffers to leave Milpitas City Hall. Human Resources Director Carmen Valdez retired a month early this past May after 30 years working for the city, leaving behind rumors of a clash with the city manager.

Jeff Moneda, head of public works and engineering, left last November after taking medical leave. Moneda's predecessor Greg Armenderiz abruptly resigned from the same post in 2012. Around the same time, Bonnie Greiner stepped down as head of parks and recreation, among other high-level staffers.

More recently, planning director Steve McHarris left for a job with the city of San Jose in April, filing a complaint against Williams as a parting gift. Ogaz brought that complaint to the council—which has authority to hire and fire only the city attorney and city manager—and made Williams the subject of a performance review. Giordano shot back in Williams' defense, demanding an evaluation of Ogaz, too.

The city later enlisted an outside law firm to investigate the complaint against Williams, who has been accused by many former employees—including some department heads—of creating an abusive work environment.

People from outside City Hall have also groused about Williams' behavior. A complaint from Integral Communities, a SoCal developer that recently pulled out of a $100 million investment in Milpitas, alleged that Williams berated, harassed and slandered the company's managing partner, Craig Manchester, over disagreements about a mixed-use housing project near the Great Mall.

Integral wanted to change its proposal in a way that Milpitas officials found inconsistent with the city's development goals. But in expressing that disapproval, Williams crossed the line to personal attacks, according to the complaint mailed to council members on Sept. 23, 2014.

"[N]othing that Integral has ever experienced compares to the abuse and hostility that Mr. Williams has exhibited toward Integral and Mr. Manchester, personally, during the application process for Integral's projects," the letter states.

Upset that the developers approached Milpitas elected officials about the development project, Williams shouted "You're a fucking asshole!" three times over the phone to Manchester, according to the complaint sent last fall by Integral attorney Gordon Hart.

Here's an excerpt:

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Williams rebuffed Manchester's request for a face-to-face meeting to address concerns that the city may have given inconsistent directions about the development, Hart wrote. But in an email, Williams dismissed those concerns and fired back.

"You and your firm lack integrity .... You[r] reputation in the Bay Area is not good as Hayward, Union City & San Jose have also had major problems with your company," Williams wrote. "Anymore slanderous communication by you, your staff or consultants will lead to the city taking action."

Integral's attorney wrote that the exchange is typical of past behavior by the city manager.

"Unfortunately, Mr. Williams' recent misconduct is consistent with the way he has managed the city's review of Integral's project applications for a number of years," the letter continues. "Based on our close observations and confidential communications with former city staff over the years, we believe that Mr. Williams has created such a hostile environment among the staff who have worked on Integral projects that the staff believed that they will be fired or reassigned if they seek to fairly and appropriately process Integral's development applications or express disagreement with the adverse positions Mr. Williams directs them to take."

Integral has declined to comment on the complaint, which the company withdrew shortly after sending. Milpitas city officials have also declined to address it, dismissing the allegations about the city manager's behavior as rumors from disgruntled employees and unable to comment anyway because the allegations are considered private personnel matters.

Back in April, before the closed-session discussion about McHarris' complaint, Williams appeared visibly upset and said he felt that Ogaz had put him "in the crosshairs." It's unclear what the complaint was about, only that it was against Williams.

Just a couple months later, Ogaz found himself in the crosshairs and out of a job. It's unclear when he leaves his post, but sources say that the city may hire an interim to replace him until the council approves a deal with an outside law firm.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

6 Comments

  1. Articles in Metro point to similar sins with San Jose’s legal department – only much worse. A large legal staff that outsources even trivial items.

  2. Tom Williams’ sly maneuver to eliminate the City attorney is brilliant. He deftly assures outside council findings on complaints against him are minimized and inconsequential. From henceforth Tom Williams will rule supreme. No one; city staff, developers, or citizens, will dare question let alone challenge Tom Williams on any matter in fear of his vengeful sledgehammer blows. Everyone will suffer under his erratic, irrational, and tyrannical rule. Thank you to City Council and namely Debbie Giordano for ensuring Tom Williams’ longevity in Milpitas. Milpitas local government is the laughing stock of Silicon Valley! Job well done.

    • Of course the City Attorney was terminated. Right before Williams’ investigation. Whoever is hired in the interim will be biased towards the City Manager. Will ethics prevail? Will the new Interim Attorney do what’s right, as did Mike Ogaz and risk employment? These shenanigans are what give government employees a bad reputation! It is unfortunate, but our city, Milpitas, will be known throughout California for unpopular and negative events and the way the city is heading towards, may possibly replace the City of Bell in California history.

  3. Debbie Giordano’s ethics are questionable, to say the least. (Remember when she was caught on video camera taking the mailbox from her ex-husband’s home a few years ago, and remember when a citizen brought that to the attention of the city council how she attacked the messenger?) But at the end of the day, this is the fault of the citizens of Milpitas who elected Ms. Giordano. They have the power to vote in new people to represent them, and I hope they will at the next election.

  4. Maybe it is all part of the $250K City Strategic Plan? Your tax dollars at work!