On October 3, Ned Thomas was appointed as Milpitas’ new City Manager.
The Beat sat down with Thomas for an in-depth interview to discuss his current priorities, as well as some of his experiences working for the City…
Over the years, Thomas has cultivated a reputation for delivering results. With his rich and varied experiences in planning, along with his time spent serving in high-level leadership positions, Thomas offers a stabilizing, sure-handed presence.
When it comes to City Managers, Thomas’ background is unique. He grew up in the small town of Malad, Idaho, and was raised by hard-working entrepreneurial parents. His mother and father opened their first grocery store in Willits, California in the early 1940s, then moved back to Idaho in 1949 to build a full-service store. In 1999, Thomas’ brother built out a newer, larger store called Thomas Market.
“My nephew owns and manages the family business today,” shared Thomas. “Still going strong after more than 80 years.”
Though he has small town roots, Thomas has also lived in a host of big cities – New York, Las Vegas, Boston, Orlando, Los Angeles – and even Tokyo and Fukuoka, Japan!
He has spent a total of 5 years working and living in Japan, and speaks fluent Japanese. He also has a Masters in Urban Planning and Design from Harvard University.
Thomas came to the City of Milpitas in August of 2018 to take on the role of Planning Director. He had just come off of working within the City of San José’s Planning Division, where he first served as Supervising Planner, then Division Manager.
During Thomas’ time working as Planning Director, he’s proud of all the things he and staff accomplished. Last year, the City of Milpitas won awards from the American Planning Association for their 2040 General Plan and their Planning Tools for Housing, which included a well-designed Development Review Handbook.
While under Thomas’ leadership, the Planning Department was also instrumental in the planning of Milpitas’ current SMART micro transit system. The implementation of this on-demand rideshare, which allows residents and visitors to get around the city quickly, was spearheaded by Jay Lee, who recently stepped in to become Milpitas’ new Planning Director.
“It had a slow start, but once we figured out how to market it, the ridership goes up every week,” said Thomas, who uses the transit regularly to get from City Hall to the BART station. “To have this locally branded and to provide that in Milpitas – it’s just been a wonderful project to work on.”
Priorities and Challenges
As City Manager, Thomas’ current priorities are set by the agendas of the City Council. At the top of the list is community and public safety. He truly believes that among Milpitas’ greatest assets are our Police and Fire Departments.
“Both Police and Fire have strong support in the community,” said Thomas. “Both departments function very well and have strong leadership.”
Thomas also feels that emergency preparedness is essential, whether it’s getting ready for events like earthquakes or wildfires, or even civil unrest.
Another priority is working consistently to improve Milpitas’ infrastructure. By infrastructure, he means our buildings, roads, utilities, and the like.
At a recent Council meeting, Public Works delivered a presentation on the City’s stormwater infrastructure, which is aging.
“A lot of the infrastructure in Milpitas is 40 or 50 years old and needs to be repaired, maintained, and upgraded,” Thomas shared.
He’d also like to ensure that Milpitas stays fiscally sustainable. Working with the Economic Development Office, which is part of the City Manager’s Office, Thomas wants to be sure that the City is always attracting and keeping businesses in Milpitas.
When asked about the biggest challenges facing Milpitas right now, Thomas spoke about the importance of revitalizing Main Street. He feels the entire area has major potential and he’d like to see it thrive and develop.
Recently, the City of Milpitas has been intentional about looking at what immediate actions they can take to spruce up Main Street. For instance, they’ve been putting up new banners to improve the look of the street, along with investing in events that might attract people to the area. Two years ago, they also held the first Holiday Magic event off of Main Street.
Thomas knows that the fragmentation of property ownership is a big issue, in terms of developing the area.
“Main Street has all these small lots, and developers want larger areas to build,” said Thomas.
The City will be looking at updating the current midtown plan to address some of the issues standing in the way of our Main Street being able to fulfill its fullest potential.
There’s also a new facade improvement program headed up by the Economic Development Department, whereby businesses on Main Street will receive grants to improve their facades, which can mean things like restaurants starting to offer outdoor dining.
Cybersecurity’s another challenge that Thomas mentioned the City is tackling. The recent decision by the City Council to discontinue public comments through Zoom is just one part of their efforts.
“Also, many big issues that we deal with here – homelessness, traffic, and housing – they’re not unique to Milpitas. They’re regional,” said Thomas. “Our City works closely with neighbors like the Cities Association of Santa Clara County. And all regional City Managers have a group where we meet monthly.”
Interesting Facets of Milpitas
As someone who’s intrigued by history, Thomas highlights one little-known facet about Milpitas’ O’Toole Elms Park, located on South Abel Street.
In the late 1800s, John O’Toole and his family owned a mansion in this area of South Milpitas; the property was 584 acres in size and contained a great deal of Elmwood trees. The current Elmwood Correctional Facility was built over some of the area that was known as O’Toole’s estate.
“And O’Toole Elms Park is on a diagonal, which some might wonder about – it’s because it’s the original entrance to the estate,” Thomas shared.
Another interesting thing Thomas mentioned was that the Aha Indian Cuisine restaurant on Main Street is located in one of the few truly historic buildings left in Milpitas…
“If you look at old pictures, you can see that building. It was a way-stop for people during the goldmine days. They would come in and stop and water the horses, or get a beverage or food,” Thomas said.
That corner was known as Smith’s Corner.
Thomas also spoke highly of the Alviso Adobe tour, which features creative interactive presentations at a historical site that dates back to 1834. (Note: If you haven’t been on that tour, you must make it a priority to go as soon as possible!)
City Manager Turnover
In the past several years, the City of Milpitas has seen a high amount of turnover in the City Manager position. The previous City Manager, Steve McHarris, filed a lengthy complaint with the City as he was leaving his position this past June. More recently, the Assistant City Manager resigned.
To anyone concerned by the rockiness at City Hall, Thomas had this to say:
“In recent years there have been unfortunate events in the City Manager’s office. But I think there are a variety of reasons that people come and go. It’s a tough position…There was a time when there was great stability in this office. I would hope that we are opening a new chapter. We have a lot of work to do.”
Lately, Thomas has been telling staff, “I know it’s been tough and uncertain at times, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could be the team that will turn that around and make the change?”
Although Thomas felt satisfied in his position as Planning Director, he felt more than ready back in June when he was asked by Council to step up into the role of Acting City Manager. He served that position for three months before officially being appointed to City Manager earlier this month.
“I asked them: Why me?” Thomas told The Beat. “They said they wanted someone trustworthy who had integrity and could help stabilize the organization. I was always taught by my parents and grandparents to be that kind of person.”
Thomas looks back to when he arrived here 5 years ago, and was an unknown in the City. He believes that over the years, the Council was able to see all the work he and the staff had accomplished together in Planning.
Since he started in the City Manager’s office, Thomas has made a point of staying connected to the staff. He participates in staff meetings across different departments. And each month, he sends out a video to staff with updates on what is happening in the City. He also uses the videos as a way of acknowledging staff members for all the amazing work they’re doing.
“Community engagement is in my blood,” said Thomas. “I love to work with people in the community to resolve whatever their issues are. Sometimes people get heated about certain topics. But that doesn’t bother me. It shows that they really care, that they have high expectations for the local government to solve their issues – and sometimes we can.”