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January 9, 2007 > Tom Williams: Milpitas City Manager

Tom Williams: Milpitas City Manager

By Steve Warga

TCV: How did a Southern California native end up in the Milpitas City Manager's chair?

Williams: I went to work for the City of San Diego as an intern my senior year in college and worked on various development applications, both residential and commercial. The city offered me a position as a junior planner after I graduated. Over the next nine years I worked my way up to become a senior planner.

In the mid-'80s, Mayor Maureen O'Connor persuaded the city council to plan and build a true downtown. Before then, government offices were about the only buildings in downtown San Diego. At 5 p.m. it seemed like everything was rolled up and put away for the night. And this was the sixth largest city in the country!

So the city council appointed a "czar" of downtown planning. I applied to work on his team and we put together the redevelopment plan that resulted in today's downtown San Diego.

This was a unique experience because city planning can be very long term. It can take decades sometimes for a redevelopment project to go from the drawing board to reality. The San Diego planning was a neat process because the downtown is a pretty small area and once the plan was drawn, we had applications and projects online very quickly.

After that plan was rolling, with buildings going up and so on, I accepted a position as a private consultant with a firm in Northern California, where I worked for about ten years. But I missed municipal government planning, so I applied and was accepted as assistant planning director in Los Gatos. Then I was hired as community development director for San Bruno, before applying for the Milpitas Planning Director job.

I was impressed with this city's downtown redevelopment plan. I think it's a good plan and everybody seems to be on the same page. So that's what brought me to apply. Then when the ad came out for the city manager's position, they said they were looking for a candidate with hands-on redevelopment experience. With my predecessor's encouragement, I went ahead and applied.

TCV: What are your priorities for your first year?

Williams: We're looking to convene a strategic planning conference, probably in March, where city leaders will lay out a set of priorities and goals. Then we'll establish checkpoints of maybe one-year, three-year and five-year goals for those priorities.

This will be separate from our annual budget planning process which gets rolling in February. But the strategic plan will help us identify our budget priorities. I'm expecting money to be tight again this next fiscal year, but I think we're seeing light at the end of the tunnel in 2008.

TCV: How do you prioritize the city's funding decisions?

Williams: I like to think of spending items as "above the line" and "below the line." Above the line items are those services we have to do as a general law city; things like fire and police services. Below that line are the non-mandated services we try to provide. The difference is important when it comes to budget decisions and I hope to keep this distinction at the front our thinking.

With above the line spending, you can't do much more than review for efficiency. We must avoid cutting in those areas if at all possible. You can get more creative though with below the line spending. That's when you can really look at what you're spending and why it's important.

TCV: Given that you hadn't planned to become city manager when you came to Milpitas a year ago, where do you expect to encounter learning curves?

Williams: I'll start by saying that I think my strengths are on the fiscal issues; the budget and on the service side. My primary learning curve is in the area of communication with the council.

Maintaining a strong service component is number one with me. After that, I'll focus on learning the balance of keeping the council informed without providing too much for them to digest. They're all part time, so it's up to me to know the issues thoroughly so I can brief them completely. As simple as that sounds, it's critical for me to master that balance. It's something that will come with experience.

TCV: Anything you'd like to add?

Williams: My personal goal is to be the longest tenured manager in the city's history. I really like the city; I like the dynamics of the city; I like the balance of land uses; I like the size of the city; I like the challenges it is facing.

As I said, everybody seems to be on the same page. We're not squabbling about where we want the city to go with its development. When it comes to the real work of putting plans into action, things go much smoother with everyone sharing the same vision.

Milpitas has done a lot since 1954 and it has a lot ahead to do. I'm proud to play a part in our future.

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