Earlier this month, Milpitas City Attorney Mike Ogaz called for a review of two unnamed employees. The 11th hour agenda didn’t disclose much, just that it had something to do with somebody's “discipline/dismissal/release.” In a terse exchange before the closed-door meeting, City Manager Tom Williams said he felt like Ogaz had put him "right in the crosshairs," though he wouldn't publicly say why. According to sources inside Milpitas City Hall, Williams was one subject of that review.
San Jose Inside spoke to a dozen current and former employees who blame Williams for creating a hostile work environment that's led to unprecedented turnover of department heads over the past several years. Many of these sources asked for their names to be withheld because of pending grievances or fear of retribution.
"The body count is pretty high," one former employee said. "There's a pattern you start to see. Someone goes out on medical leave, finds a new job. Or, they just see the writing on the wall and get the hell out of dodge."
While several past department heads reached for this story confirmed that Williams' aggressive behavior is the reason they left Milpitas, they declined to be quoted. A look at past news stories appears to confirm a trend.
Longtime Public Works Director/City Engineer Greg Armenderiz resigned while on medical leave in 2012. News reports cited an "undisclosed medical condition."
Kathleen Phalen filled the role as interim until the city appointed Jeff Moneda, who resigned while on medical leave last December. In an interview with the Milpitas Post at the time, Williams wouldn’t elaborate on the abrupt departure, except for a backhanded remark about how Moneda may not have been up for the job.
Acting Planning and Neighborhood Services Director Diana Barnhart stepped up to the role in 2011 after James Lindsay resigned to work as community development director in Saratoga, where he was promoted to city manager. Barnhart left her interim post after a months-long medical leave in summer 2012.
After a 50-year stretch with five fire chiefs—one served for three decades—Milpitas has gone through five more chiefs in the past six years alone.
"[Williams] can get himself into trouble if he keeps up with his demonstrative anger," said a longtime city employee. "The department heads, they’ve let themselves become his whipping post. To his credit, Tom does a good job ... but there’s no heart in it and there’s no respect."
Several former employees say they remember Williams, who joined the city in 2005, locking a department head out of her office and forcing her to work in a roomful of cubicles with employees below her pay grade. The goal was to shame her, a retired colleague said. In another instance, an employee's wife says she filed a police report against Williams, worried about her husband's safety.
A union rep, who asked for their name to be withheld because of a pending legal challenge against the city, said there are three types of people who work for Milpitas: "Those who just bide their time and stay under the radar; those who oppose Tom, who finds a way to get rid of them; and those who are scared enough that he capitalizes on their weakness and abuses them until they can’t take it anymore."
Nancy Mendizabal was the type to oppose Williams. In 2009, as president of the Professional and Technical Group—a union representing engineering, building, finance, recreation and clerical staff—she often witnessed the city manager's outbursts from across the bargaining table.
"Red face, bulging veins, raising his voice," Mendizabel said. "Listen, I’ve worked with men—and I mean only men—as a construction inspector out in the field for 30 years. I’m not afraid of men. I’m not afraid of confrontation. But I quickly learned that I was never going to go into a meeting with him, not without one of his administrators there, too."
In a grievance Mendizabel filed with the Public Employee Relations Board, Williams accused her of aggressive behavior, too. The board, however, upheld Mendizabal's claim against Milpitas, which alleged that the city violated her right to represent her bargaining unit after her layoff with dozens of her colleagues in 2009. Other Milpitas employees have taken their complaints to the quasi-judicial state board in the past few years, some of which were withdrawn and others settled.
Members of the Milpitas Oversight Board to the Redevelopment Successor Agency told San Jose Inside they have put up with personal attacks from Williams during what should have been routine meetings.
"I always think this is so damn embarrassing, that other people are seeing our city manager act like this," said Mike Mendizabal, Nancy's husband and oversight board member. "At a public meeting, no less."
Bruce Knopf, a fellow oversight board member and director of Santa Clara County's Asset and Economic Development division, agreed.
"I did not find his demeanor to be professional," Knopf said. "Attend one of our board meetings. You’ll see what I’m talking about."
Williams refused to address claims that he has created a hostile work environment, saying that the health of the city speaks for itself. Milpitas went through years of drastic budget shortfalls and a fiscal emergency in 2012. To cope, Williams had to lay off 14 percent of the city's workforce, combine departments and eschew medical coverage for council members. On top of that, the city lost millions of dollars in a lawsuit with the state over whether it could use redevelopment money to pay city salaries.
"We've gone through a lot with the recession and budget cuts, but those years are behind us and we're moving in a positive direction," Williams says. "The city of Milpitas, we're doing great things. The city's very healthy."
He referred questions about personnel matters to Ogaz, who did not immediately return calls for comment.
Councilwoman Debbie Giordano praised Williams for his leadership and said she's never heard anything negative about the way he comports himself at work.
"He got a terrific raise by the outgoing council about four or five months ago," she said. "He had a great review. He’s had a tremendous track record with our city. Nobody's complained to us."
A few weeks ago, Steve McHarris became the third planning director to resign in the past four years—he plans to start his new job as a planning official for the city of San Jose next month. McHarris did not return calls for comment, but sources inside Milpitas City Hall consider him the latest casualty of the toxic work environment. They told San Jose Inside that a complaint filed by McHarris against Williams prompted Ogaz to call for the closed-door meeting earlier this month.
Shortly after the city posted the closed-session notice April 6, it put out a revised agenda. Councilwoman Giordano asked to include a performance review of Ogaz as well. The city attorney and city manager are the only two employees the council has the authority to hire and fire. Because it's a personnel matter, city officials declined to comment.
Giordano said she called for the review of Ogaz because she was "concerned about the due process and how the dispute was being handled." She added that never in her 10 years on the council has she seen a personnel conflict brought up this way, to the elected board.
Minutes before the April 7 closed session, Williams was visibly upset. The council called off its regular meeting to talk about the issue which involved a complaint and a dispute between two employees.
"I just have one request," Williams said, addressing the council with his back turned slightly toward his colleague, Ogaz. "I've been asking for the information that generated this meeting by the city attorney. Can I get the concurrence of the City Council that the city attorney can disclose to me that complaint?"
"This is a matter that should be considered in closed session," Ogaz warned.
Undeterred, Williams repeated his question to the council.
"It's just a very simple matter that I'm just asking," Williams said, still facing away from Ogaz. "If the City Council can agree that the city attorney provide me the information. Just a simple question."
Ogaz offered another admonition.
"Mr. Mayor," Williams continued, "since this is a very serious issue and since the city attorney has put me right in the crosshairs and that now we're speaking about it, I for one would support ... the concurrence of the City Council to get the city attorney the information that I've requested."
In a 3-2 vote, the council agreed to adjourn the regular meeting to closed session. It's unclear whether Williams got the information he wanted about the complaint. No post-meeting announcement was made. But the performance review of Ogaz has been deferred to tonight's council meeting.
This article has been updated.