Milpitas’ highest-ranking bureaucrat has threatened to sue his own city to defend his reputation, according to a document obtained exclusively by San Jose Inside.
But in demanding a seven-figure settlement from the taxpayers who employ him, City Manager Tom Williams might be doing more to tarnish his record than one of his loudest critics—newly elected Mayor Rich Tran.
Attempts to obtain information about the potential lawsuit have been blocked by Williams, who on Friday morning sought a court order to prevent the city from releasing documents requested by reporters. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Mary Arand ruled in favor of his motion for a temporary restraining order, which prevents the city from disclosing information about his personnel record.
However, San Jose Inside pre-empted the ruling by publishing at least one document Williams sought to protect: a cease-and-desist letter sent to the mayor and the City Council. The April 13 missive, which was obtained from multiple sources, tells Tran to stop criticizing Williams in public or risk getting sued by the month’s end. Williams said he would seek $500,000 for damages to his reputation, $500,000 for emotional distress and at least $15,000 for attorney’s fees.
While Arand granted the order to prevent personnel records from being disclosed, she said there’s no reason for the city to withhold other documents requested by Metro Silicon Valley (San Jose Inside’s parent newspaper) and the Milpitas Post. “I’m hopeful that there could be some discussion about getting some records released,” she said.
Williams’ personal attorney, Claire Cochran, agreed.
“There’s a lot more records that we don’t mind being released,” she said, adding that the city is still gathering emails and other documents requested by reporters.
Attorneys for both the city and the Post skipped Friday’s hearing, which was continued to May 16. Until then, the court order prevents the city from releasing Williams’ employment records, performance evaluations, meeting minutes or emails. The motion also sought to protect the cease-and-desist notice, but that was published hours before the hearing. It’s clear why Williams would want to to keep it under wraps.
The leaked letter claims that Tran—who at 32 is one of the youngest mayors in California—discriminated against the 53-year-old city manager because of his age. It also accuses the mayor of inappropriately disparaging Williams’ job performance to the public, to the press and to his face. The 11-page admonition from Cochran, of Ad Astra Law Group, describes several of those exchanges.
On Jan. 20, Tran allegedly told Williams: “Hey, what’s up? Now, ya’ know I told the voters I had to investigate you. So noth’en personal, but I gotta do what I gotta do. Hey, by the way, when are you going to retire? I need to mix it up with some younger people around here, people that look more like me.”
On March 19, Williams claims, Tran approached him in his office to give him a heads up about his plans to conduct a performance evaluation in public view.
“I don’t care what your contract says ... My job is to get rid of you for my people,” Tran allegedly said. “You old guys need to move out of the way.”
The letter notes how Tran told the Post a week before the November election that Williams has cost taxpayers money by prompting an exodus of department heads and a series of lawsuits over retaliation and age discrimination. Over the past several months, the letter states, the mayor continued to broadcast those concerns on social media, in public hearings and, at times, in violation of open meeting laws. Although, in Tran’s defense, some of his critiques hold true.
San Jose Inside broke the story about Williams’ workplace harassment in early 2015. A series of lawsuits ensued, resulting in settlements as recently as this spring.
In December 2015, Milpitas coughed up $600,000 to settle an age discrimination claim filed by Lori Casagrande, a former office clerk. In March 2016, the city paid former personnel chief Carmen Valdez $100,000 to drop charges of retaliation. In April that same year, the city shelled out $140,000 to settle an age discrimination claim filed by the federal government. Just last month, Milpitas’ former city attorney, Michael Ogaz, dropped retaliation claims in exchange for a $975,000 settlement.
Amid the flurry of litigation, the city hired a crisis management flak that cost taxpayers more than $120,000 a year. Then there’s Williams’ annual salary and benefits package, which amounts to something on the order of $400,000 and makes him one of the highest paid city managers in the state.
Though San Jose Inside and the Post reported on the lawsuits, the boutique public relations contract with Singer Associates Inc. and Williams’ lucrative compensation, Williams singled out Tran’s remarks as defamatory. On Feb. 7, according to Williams’s cease-and-desist notice, Tran said: “Hey there, Mr. City Manager, you don’t look so good. You look stressed. Now, I’m not stressing you out, am I? But you know what I gotta do. My people are telling you’re to blame for all this cost. You have cost the city way too much money. You sure you don’t want to retire now?”
In a Facebook post last month, Tran wrote about his intent to subject Williams to an independent performance review and a discussion in open session. “Nearly $1 million settlement involved,” Tran wrote in the March 6 post. “Way too much money. We will seek the truth and go from there.”
Tran’s calls for accountability, however, have been overshadowed by repeated missteps.
The mayor garnered negative attention for plagiarizing a speech by President Barack Obama and quoting Jay Z without attribution. Not a month after he was sworn into office, Tran skirted the Brown Act by emailing the entire City Council. Milpitas’ outsourced city attorney, Chris Diaz, later chastised him for flouting the same open meeting laws by discussing Williams’ work performance in an public council session.
Altogether, the feedback at City Hall has forced the normally candid mayor into circumspection. Tran declined comment on his interactions with Williams.
But San Jose Inside independently confirmed that Williams has tried to bully his previous critics into silence. His threat to sue the mayor and the city over public remarks about his job performance could be nothing more than an intimidation tactic. His attempt in court this morning to block information pertaining to those threats may be more of the same: an attempt to subvert an outspoken mayor.
The lawsuit filed against the city, the Post and Metro indicates that Diaz planned to release the cease-and-desist letter in response to a request for correspondence between Williams and elected officials. The complaint repeatedly mentions “the city’s intended disclosure,”claiming it would “cause irreparable harm” to Williams and undermine his privacy rights. Cochran said Diaz contacted her twice this past week to let her know that he planned to share the letter with reporters. On Wednesday, a day after the second call from Diaz, Cochran filed an ex parte motion stop him.
David Snyder, an attorney for the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition, said Williams’ lawyer is using a relatively novel tactic known as the “reverse” California Public Records Act (CPRA). The practice stems from a 2012 precedent in which the California Court of Appeal held that people can sue to block the release of documents responsive to a CPRA request. Indeed, Cochran cites the case—Marken v. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District—in her motion for injunctive relief.
Snyder said he worries that reverse CPRA suits will become more common, which would make things considerably more challenging for journalists.
“The procedure is completely counter to the purpose of the California Public Records Act, in that it puts requestors in the position of having to hire a lawyer to get the records they want,” Snyder said. “The whole purpose of the CPRA was to allow anyone to come in and request the records that they want. It’s unfortunate that this new precedent could cause the entire system to grind to a halt.”
This article has been updated.