Milpitas axes 3rd city manager in 6 years

Frustrated Milpitas residents and councilmembers are calling for a reversal on the sudden decision to let go City Manager Steve McHarris. 

McHarris is the third city manager to be let go in Milpitas since 2017, and is yet another loss in leadership that has shocked residents and left them wondering when the tumultuous string of turnovers will finally be over.

Mayor Carmen Montano and her two allies on the Milpitas City Council voted during a special meeting earlier this month to not renew McHarris' contract, which ends in early June, effectively firing him. 

McHarris said he was caught off-guard by the decision. 

"They provided no communication and no plan," McHarris told San Jose Spotlight. 

Following a nearly three-hour closed session special meeting on Feb. 2, Montano spoke briefly at the council dais to deliver the decision to the public. 

The council majority of Montano, Vice Mayor Evelyn Chua and Councilmember Garry Barbadillo voted to let McHarris go, she said, while Councilmembers Anthony Phan and Hon Lien opposed the decision. 

"All I know is what they reported out, and there has been no communication on this since, to my knowledge, to anybody at City Hall," McHarris said. 

Phan told San Jose Spotlight that McHarris has done great work for the city since he was appointed as interim city manager in 2019. He was promoted to the permanent role in 2020. 

Morale was low at City Hall when McHarris first came into the position, Phan said, and the culture felt increasingly toxic. 

"He really built up City Hall morale to an all-time high," Phan told San Jose Spotlight. "The city of Milpitas has benefited tremendously from his leadership." 

Montano declined to go into details on the decision because she said it happened during a closed session. She also took issue with calling the council's decision to let go of McHarris a "firing." 

"He's not fired, he's still with us. His contract ends in June. He's still with us and that's all I am going to say," Montano told San Jose Spotlight. 

McHarris' contract says the council cannot take action to terminate him without cause within six months following a city council election. 

Montano, elected in the November general election, said she doesn't think the council violated that contract provision with the vote, but declined to elaborate. The contract also says McHarris is eligible for nine months of severance and benefits pay if he is fired without cause. 

Chua declined to comment because the decision was made in closed session and Barbadillo did not respond to requests for comment. 

Milpitas has seen more than its share of city managers come and go in recent years under controversial or cloudy circumstances. 

McHarris previously worked for three years as Milpitas' planning and neighborhood services director until 2015, when he filed a complaint alleging Tom Williams, the former city manager, created "an environment of fear, anxiety and suppression of staff opinion" at City Hall. McHarris then departed for a role in San Jose. 

Williams resigned in 2017 as the council seemed poised to fire him just months after he was placed on administrative leave. The council had accused Williams of using a city-issued credit card to pay his legal fees in an age discrimination lawsuit he brought against then-Mayor Rich Tran. 

Julie Edmonds-Mares was hired in early 2018 to replace Williams, but abruptly resigned without explanation in June 2019. Despite officials claiming her departure was a mutual decision, the city paid her a severance package of nearly $200,000, suggesting she may have been forced out. 

McHarris was hired back to Milpitas as a deputy city manager in 2018 by Edmonds-Mares, before being appointed to the interim and then permanent city manager roles. 

At the Milpitas City Council meeting on Feb. 21, some residents lambasted the council majority over the decision to let McHarris go, pushing for an explanation. 

"Where is the transparency Mayor Montano? You promised us this in your inauguration. Evelyn Chua, you promised the same thing," longtime resident Joseph Weinstein said. "This is uncalled for and we deserve answers." 

Uyenthy Nguyen, another longtime resident, said McHarris has been doing a good job. She also had issues with the lack of transparency from the council. 

"We expect the mayor and the city council to explain what is going on and to reinstate the city manager," she said. 

At the meeting, Councilmember Lien asked to schedule another closed session to discuss extending McHarris' contract, but Montano quickly shot it down. 

"So you want a special meeting to discuss the city manager again?" Montano said. "We've already made that decision."