When former City Manager Julie Edmonds-Mares was appointed as Milpitas City Manager, she took the reigns of an office embattled in legal scandal. Her predecessor, Tom Williams, resigned after allegedly misappropriating city funds for legal costs in a lawsuit waged against the City of Milpitas and Mayor Rich Tran, part of an ongoing back and forth between the city’s two most powerful men.
Two interim City Managers took Williams’ place before Edmonds-Mares was tapped by the City Council to assume the managership. One of the interim managers, former Arroyo Grande City Manager Dianne Thompson, came in fresh off the heels of her own beef with Arroyo Grande’s City Council.
Edmonds-Mares’s permanent appointment in 2018 was supposed to mark a fresh start for the City Council. The City, eager to put the legal drama — and legal fees footed by taxpayers — behind them, was set to welcome several new developments, advance affordable housing initiatives, and progress on the often-delayed BART station opening.
But in May, after only a year in office, Edmonds-Mares resigned.
A deeper dive, however, suggests Edmonds-Mares did not resign, and was in fact forced out of office…
According to her contract, Edmonds-Mares was to receive a severance package if she left the position on any other terms besides resignation. Since Edmonds-Mares did receive a severance package (and a hefty one at that), it seems reasonable to presume that she did not, in fact, voluntarily resign from office.
According to two sources close to City Hall who spoke to The Beat on the condition of anonymity, Edmonds-Mares was forced out of office after an unprecedented five closed-door performance reviews — an unusual number given the short amount of time she was in office. The last performance review on May 21 came just two weeks after a verbal sparring session between her and the City Council on May 7.
According to one source, both the City and the soon-to-be former City Manager decided to officially frame her departure as a resignation to avoid the public relations consequence of either side seeming to harbor a beef with the other.
Edmonds-Mares’s penultimate City Council meeting appearance was at the aforementioned May 7 meeting, just two weeks before her resignation. The Council had agendized two items relating to tenant protections for discussion. Vice Mayor Karina Dominguez, who had successfully run for Council in 2018 on an affordable housing-heavy platform, repeatedly challenged Edmonds-Mares over the classification of two tenant protection ordinances previously discussed on April 2 — concerning rent control and just-cause evictions, respectively — both of which Dominguez had a hand in writing. Dominguez had written the ordinances specifically as enactment ordinances, which meant the Council would be able to enact them following a Council vote.
The way the ordinances had been written on the May 7 agenda, however, only allowed for the Council to provide direction to staff to research and put together ordinances, so as to bring them back at a later date.
The responsibility for authoring Council meeting agendas lies with the City Manager, according to that position’s job description. And to comply with the Ralph M. Brown Act of 1953, the agenda has to be followed the way it was written and presented to the public.
Thus, the ordinances were to be voted on as directives, and not as enactments per Dominguez’s initial authoring of them.
What followed between Dominguez and Edmonds-Mares was a tense public exchange wherein Dominguez angrily recalled a conversation the two had had beforehand that promised both ordinances could be enacted. Edmonds-Mares stammered her way through a defense, saying she “did her best to follow Council direction,” and implying that the Council has directed her to leave the items only for discussion. By the end of the exchange, Dominguez was visibly shaken.
Edmonds-Mares’s time in Milpitas City Hall was running out.
Both ordinances would be defeated later that night, splitting the council 3-2. Councilmembers Carmen Montano, Bob Nuñez, and Anthony Phan voted no, while Tran and Dominguez both voted yes.
At the end of the five-hour meeting, the sources say, the Council had had enough. Tensions had flared, burning the relationship between the City Manager and the Council. Edmonds-Mares would appear at only one more City Council meeting as Manager before she and the City announced her resignation on May 29.
Notably, neither source pointed to the Dominguez agenda item incident as the sole reason as to why Edmonds-Mares was ousted from office. But the incident telegraphed the unsustainable relationship between the City Council and Edmonds-Mares, and the difficulties they had working with each other.
“In theory, the city manager should be working for the city council and taking direction from the council. But sometimes the city manager acts like the city council works for them, and demands that the council follow his or her direction. It’s the opposite of how it should be,” one of the sources told The Beat. “The city council is the authority, because they ultimately answer to the voters. If the city council tries to do something bad for the city, the voters can vote them out. If a city manager does something bad for the city…most of the time the voters are powerless to stop it.”
Upon her exit, the former City Manager was granted $198,868 in severance pay, according to City documents.
The Beat was denied a request to review Edmonds-Mares’s resignation letter. In an email from a city spokesperson, City Attorney Chris Diaz deemed the letter “a personnel-related document and exempt from disclosure.” Mayor Tran also declined to comment directly on the resignation, but maintained that there had been no wrongdoing on the City’s part in the “new direction in the City Manager’s office,” and that the City “wasn’t trying to hide anything” when it came to personnel matters.
“As the Mayor of the city, I’ll always make sure we abide by any contract,” Tran said in an interview with The Beat. “The confidence level at City Hall is at an all-time high, and I firmly believe that our elected officials are more confident than ever going forward.”
Tran was not present for Edmonds-Mares’s job interview before the City hired her, as he was away on National Guard duty.
Edmonds-Mares came to Milpitas after a stint with the City of San Jose as Deputy City Manager. When she came to Milpitas, she was offered an annual salary of $298,000 a year, according to her contract. Edmonds-Mares’s total gross salary — including benefits — totaled an estimated $350,000 in 2018, making her one of the highest-paid city managers in Milpitas history.
Under her direction, Edmonds-Mares oversaw the 2018-19 city budget and the proposed 2019-20 budget, one of the largest in City history. She also proposed the 2018 midyear creation of the full-time positions of Deputy City Manager and Assistant City Manager within the City Manager’s office.
Upon creating the Deputy office, she named Steve McHarris to the position. McHarris had previously served as a City Planner when Williams was City Manager. In 2015, McHarris left the City of Milpitas after saying Williams had turned City Hall into “an environment of fear.”
With Edmonds-Mares’s additions, the number of executives in the City Manager’s office had ballooned from one to three. What was once a “lean, low-cost office” according to one source grew into an outright bureaucracy, paid for by taxpayers. Both the Deputy and Assistant City Managers earn approximately $180,000 annually.
Meanwhile, the former City Manager saw a handful of top-level individuals abruptly resign during her term. Finance Director Will Fuentes stated at a February budget meeting that it would be his last. And before Fuentes’ departure, within a span of a few months during 2018, Economic Development Director Edesa Bitbadal, Planning Director Brad Misner, and Housing and Neighborhood Services Manager Tim Wong all left their positions.
None of the four could be reached for comment at the time of publication.
When Edmonds-Mares left last month, the Council moved to promote Deputy City Manager Steve McHarris to the interim position. With the appointment of McHarris, Milpitas has now seen two city managers and three interim managers since Mayor Rich Tran took office in 2016.
City Hall has not announced long-term plans regarding McHarris.
Neither Edmonds-Mares nor Vice Mayor Dominguez could be reached for comment by the time of publication. A City spokesperson did speak with The Beat, but declined to comment on the specific reasons for Edmonds-Mares’s resignation, citing legal concerns.
However, Tran did tell The Beat that “Milpitas continues to be strong and successful,” and that the City would “continue to move forward in a positive way.”
He added, “Residents can rest assured that the transparency at City Hall is greater than ever.”