Milpitas has finally released records detailing previously undisclosed allegations of wrongdoing by disgraced City Manager Tom Williams, who resigned in September amid a cloud of controversy. The city initially refused to hand over the documents when reporters requested them earlier this year, and only released them after the First Amendment Coalition (FAC) filed a lawsuit under the California Public Records Act.
City officials sent the batch of 100-plus pages of documents to FAC on Wednesday evening—15 hours before a court hearing on the case and five months after the nonprofit first asked for them. The records (available online here) reveal new details about alleged misconduct by Williams, who helmed City Hall for more than a decade until retiring after he got caught misspending taxpayer money.
“These records should have been turned over five months ago, and it’s clear from the timing of the documents’ release—the night before a court hearing on FAC’s lawsuit—that the city’s original basis for withholding the records is indefensible,” FAC Executive Director David Snyder said in a press release Thursday.
The bulk of the documents involve claims by the city’s former planning chief, Steve McHarris, who was part of a long line of high-ranking staffers to quit because of Williams’ alleged harassment.
McHarris said Williams routinely cursed, yelled and intimidated employees and would spread lies to cast doubt about their credibility and competence. The ex-city manager also reportedly made racist and ageist remarks, calling Indian people “dirty” and disparaging the performance of older building inspectors.
“The city manager’s behavior is severe and pervasive,” wrote McHarris, who now works in San Jose’s planning division. “It has created a work environment that I and many city staff members find intimidating, hostile and abusive.”
McHarris described the city manager as “obsessed with his authority to end careers,” and furious when department heads who left because of him found success elsewhere. He forbade staff from talking to the press or elected officials and told them to refuse interview requests for other jobs, the former planning director said. On McHarris’ last day, he said, Williams accused him of stealing city property.
McHarris said he and others noticed that Williams was becoming increasingly hostile and seemed afflicted by memory loss. It was unclear whether his forgetfulness was feigned or not, but one city staffer reportedly called it “convenient amnesia.”
Williams, through his attorney, has yet to respond to a request for comment.
McHarris’ dramatic departure in 2015 was what prompted San Jose Inside to investigate allegations of abuse by Williams, whose behavior resulted in numerous lawsuits and high-priced settlements over the years, and was all but ignored by the press. At the time, sources familiar with McHarris’ complaint said it contained accusations of Williams’ harassment and unethical dealings with developers, but offered few specifics.
The records released this week, however, fill in some of the gaps.
Many times, per McHarris, Williams acted against the city’s best interest and used his authority to dole out favors for developers, some of whom he counts as personal friends.
In 2015, the city manager allegedly told SCS/Citation Development to find the “meanest, toughest attorney” to threaten to sue the city over a project “in hopes that the City Council would buckle under threat of litigation.”
A couple years prior, McHarris said Williams waived impact fees without council approval for an SCS/Citation apartment development. Williams allegedly wrote what staff called the “2013 side letter,” in which he authorized the tax break. In 2015, when council members repeatedly asked him about who approved the fee waivers, Williams reportedly lied by saying they did.
In 2014, Williams allegedly directed an attorney for iStar Financial to appeal the Planning Commission’s rejection of the company’s residential project. A year later, McHarris wrote, Williams removed a standard city requirement for iStar to build underground utility vaults because he figured it would be too expensive for the company.
McHarris also noted several times when the city manager seemed unduly influenced by lobbyists, and other times when he changed his mind on a dime just to spite developers he disliked. In June of 2014, at a developer-paid lunch in the Beverly Heritage Hotel Restaurant, Williams told a lobbyist for Integral Communities that the city would reverse its position on a project from no support to full support.
“I asked the city manager after the meeting in the parking lot if he knew what he had done, and he replied, ‘Yes, I know what I am doing,’” McHarris said. “He later reversed his decision, which caused a multitude of problems for the Integral projects and within my department, and significantly impacted my department’s work flow for months.”
McHarris said Williams later told him that he wanted to bankrupt Integral.
In 2014, Williams pushed the council to approve a sweetheart deal for a friend’s company. The project required the city to exchange city land for affordable senior housing units, but the number of below-market-rate homes wasn’t proportional to the value of the property, McHarris explained.
Williams also reportedly reversed a development decision on a live-work project on South Milpitas Boulevard after a lobbyist-paid lunch at Black Angus. The city manager, who initially opposed the project, apparently changed his mind over one meal.
“These were the same plans I had previously reviewed with the city manager with the opposite opinion and direction by the city manager,” McHarris wrote. “My thought was that a paid developer or lobbyist lunch is unethical, and worst yet, absolutely influences the city manager enough to change his direction on development projects in Milpitas.”
Williams acted unethically again in a deal with Lennar Homes by allowing the company to put a park in the middle of a development instead of making it publicly accessible, McHarris said. The park placement defied city rules and staff direction.
“My thought was that the lobbyist had significant influence over the city manager, enough to support allowing a developer public park credit and other advantages related to this park location at the expense of the city,” McHarris said.
Milpitas’ outsourced city attorney, Chris Diaz, has refused to release additional personnel records because Williams sued to block their release. Snyder said the city should have opposed Williams’ so-called “reverse CPRA” action, but instead failed to show up for the initial ex parte hearing.
“The people of Milpitas—and elsewhere, for that matter—have a right to know if their representatives have engaged in misconduct,” Snyder told San Jose Inside. “It’s a key obligation to voters and for the public to know what their city is doing.”