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August 8, 2006 > Charles Lawson, Milpitas City Manager

Charles Lawson, Milpitas City Manager

by Steve Warga

After 21 years as a Richmond cop; 11 years as Milpitas chief of police and now two years as city manager, Charles Lawson wants to retire. Still trim, fit and full of energy, the city might well want to keep him around a few more years!

TCV: You were police chief here for 11 years, how did you come to be city manager?

Lawson: When I was ready to retire in 2004, the council asked me to take over the vacant manager's position. We were facing some difficult times with budget cutbacks; morale was low and we were heading into negotiations with all five of our unions. The council liked what I had done with the police department and hoped to use my people skills to turn things around if we could.

I actually served as interim manager in 1997 and I think the council was satisfied with my performance then.

TCV: Are you interested in remaining city manager?

Lawson: No, I've been working full-time since I got out of college and I'm looking forward to retirement. I feel like I've accomplished what I set out to do two years ago. But if they asked me to step back in, I would probably consider it. I love this city and I think it has a lot to offer.

TCV: What are the city's strong suits?

Lawson: If you take a drive around, you'll see lots of development going on. We completed this beautiful new city hall in 2003. The new library, right behind us, will start next year. We're building two new parking garages over on Main Street, plus a senior housing complex on Main. We're also finally getting Milpitas' first medical facility other than Kaiser. That's going in on Main too.

We had Class A buildings sitting vacant after the "dot com" bust; at one point we were nearly 40 percent vacant. But now we're getting companies like Sandisk moving in. They relocated from Mountain View with over a thousand employees. They join some other major high-tech companies, like Cisco, Adaptec and Maxtor. I think LSI Logic is our biggest employer with about 2,500 workers. We're working hard to keep up with housing demands and the city is absorbing the costs of providing a percentage of affordable housing.

Along with the new shops and service businesses we're adding, we've managed to keep crime pretty well in check. In fact, our overall crime rate dropped about three percent last year, according to the FBI statistics. Actually, our crime rate is nearly what it was in the early 1980s when we had half the population. That enabled us to maintain the reduced police staffing levels we've been dealing with the last several years.

Milpitas is a very diverse community; our citizens speak 82 different languages or dialects here. It's a real challenge sometimes, but we responded to it in the police department while I was chief. In fact, we now have the most ethnically-diverse department in Northern California.

TCV: What is the city's position regarding budget reserves?

Lawson: The council's policy is to hold reserves at about 15 percent of the General Fund. We've managed to do that and to avoid deficit spending the last two years. It's been tough to go beyond just holding the line on expenses, but we've all pitched in to reduce our spending overall. We have many vacant positions, including all the assistant manager slots. This sort of budgeting isn't always popular, but things are slowly starting to turn around for us.

TCV: The council is actively seeking a new manager now. How much longer do you expect to be here?

Lawson: I'm pretty sure I'll be gone in two or three months. We'll review all the applicants and hire one of them, and then I'll stick around for a few weeks to help with the transition. After that, I'll ride off into the sunset!

TCV: Anything you'd like to add?

Lawson: I think we have a good, strong, all-American city. We have a good city council. They don't always agree, which is probably not a bad thing. But they do come together and work well for the city.

I'm grateful the council has allowed me to go out the door, so to speak, as the city manager. It's a privilege after having served in the chief's slot for 11 years. It's worked out very well for all of us, I think.

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