Tom Williams, who resigned last year as city manager of Milpitas after being accused of misusing tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, found a new job as chief administrator in his hometown of Millbrae.
In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the Peninsula burg’s five-member council named the scandal-plagued bureaucrat interim city manager until officials find a permanent replacement for the recently departed Marcia Raines.
Williams’ hire took several Milpitas officials by surprise, considering how he left the South Bay city on such contentious terms.
Over the course of his 12-year tenure at the city’s helm, Milpitas grappled with inordinately high turnover of high-ranking staffers and a series of costly payouts to settle claims of harassment, discrimination, retaliation and other unethical behavior. Things really came to a head last year with the election of an outspoken new mayor, Rich Tran, and councilors who saw the hotheaded Williams as a liability.
About a year ago, Williams threatened to sue his own city for $1 million in damages if Tran didn’t stop publicly criticizing him. When reporters from Metro Silicon Valley (San Jose Inside’s parent publication) and the Milpitas Post asked for records pertaining to the city manager’s job performance and his behind-the-scenes conflict with the mayor, Williams sued the city to block the California Public Records Act (CPRA) requests.
Through a series of CPRA requests, San Jose Inside learned that Williams tried to get the city to pick up a $37,000 tab for his personal legal battle with Tran. The city’s outsourced attorney, Chris Diaz, sent him a stern warning about the expense, saying the charges violated policy and put him at risk of criminal prosecution.
Williams was placed on paid leave in May of 2017 while the city investigated the claims, for which he sent the council a contrite letter about his lapse in judgment. Though he tried to justify the unlawful expenses as an effort to deal with harassment claims against Tran, he admitted it was a misstep and apologized for the “unfortunate” media coverage that resulted from the incident.
“I want to ensure (sic) you that I have learned a valuable lesson and if this or a similar circumstance exists in the future I will handle it differently,” he wrote last spring. “For example, I will never use the city card. I look forward to working with the council to establish a policy to address this type of issue in the future. ... This has been a learning curve and I have gained valuable experience for the future. Please accept my sincere apologies for any disruptions my actions may have caused.”
He resigned a few months later, dodging arbitration and leaving with his pension intact. His lawsuit to suppress information about his job performance continues to this day.
Earlier this month, his attorney Sean Gentry from Ad Astra Law Group told a judge that the public knows enough already about Williams, and that his retreat to the private sector makes the records in question of little interest to the public.
Gentry assured the judge that Williams had no intention of applying for another publicly funded job. But, as San Jose Inside reported after the April 16 court hearing, the opposite turned out to be true.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Sunil Kulkarni has less than three months to decide whether to release the personnel records that Williams is trying to keep under wraps. The First Amendment Coalition, which joined the lawsuit as part of a broader effort to combat so-called reverse-CPRA actions, argued that the public has a right to view those records not only to learn more about how Williams comported himself on the job but to see what steps the city took to hold him accountable.
Williams’ gaining employment once again on the taxpayer dime seems to bolster the nonprofit coalition’s case that the public’s right to know outweighs the scandal-plagued bureaucrat’s right to privacy.
Millbrae officials did not immediately return San Jose Inside’s requests for comment. But in an interview with the Post, Millbrae Councilman Reuben Holober said he and his colleagues doubt many of the allegations leveled against Williams.
In a video recording of Tuesday’s council meeting, Mayor Gina Papan praised Williams, who spent most of his 30-year career in public service, including stints at the cities of San Diego and Los Gatos before coming on as planning director in Milpitas.
“It’s a privilege and honor to step in and be the interim city manager for the city,” Williams, a 20-year Millbrae resident, told the council. He added: “You still have a lot of important decisions ahead of you in the next six months. Obviously, as you know, those decisions are going to forever change the fabric of this community. So, I am honored to be a part of it, to help you through that process, and I look forward to working with you.”
According to his seven-page contract, which sunsets on Feb. 28, 2019, Williams will make about $120 an hour and will be classified as an at-will employee. A city official told the council on Tuesday that because Williams is a CalPERS annuitant, he’ll be required to work no more than 960 hours per fiscal year.
A speaker who went up after Williams’ introduction expressed optimism about the new administrator, saying Millbrae needs a city manager with a strong background in procurement policy, contracting, the ability to avoid abuse, fraud and waste and the knowledge about how to properly use outside consultants.
“And most of all, [he needs] the management and leadership skills to coach, counsel, as you’ve had a history of trying to do …,” the speaker said, “and to avoid the extraordinary, detrimental and costly city staff turnover we’ve had for the past several years.”
With a motion by Vice Mayor Wayne Lee and a second by Councilwoman Anne Schneider, the council approved Williams’ contract.
“Welcome aboard, Mr. Williams,” Mayor Gina Papan said. “Thank you.”