The Town of Los Gatos’ former top engineer WooJae Kim is appealing an order to repay money for a town-issued laptop he reported stolen while in Hawaii.

Kim left his post in Los Gatos in December 2022 and became Public Works Director/City Engineer in Los Altos Hills.

“It seems like a total waste of everybody’s time,” said Kim when asked about the case.

The two communities are peer municipalities, with similar pay ranges.

While the current budget (2023-24) for a Los Gatos Town Engineer is $154,934-$209,162, in 2020-21 Los Altos Hills had a salary schedule of $136,882-$206,234 for the Public Works Director & City Engineer slot.

According to Transparent California, Kim was making $211,396 in regular pay in Los Gatos in 2022, for a total of $299,940.71, when benefits are factored in.

Based off those figures, this means Los Gatos took its former engineering department leader to court to claw-back an amount that works out to .46% of his yearly earnings.

‘It felt like an inside job’

—WooJae Kim, Los Gatos’ former top engineer

After Kim left, his name was brought up during a hearing over Shannon Road bikeway improvements as a rigid force that wasn’t open to altering his engineering vision in the direction of some residents who sought to maintain the rural feel of the traditional suburban neighborhood.

This put the project, which had ballooned in cost from $1.9 million to $2.3 million, at risk of losing access to $1.1 million in grant monies.

Public Works Director Nicolle Burnham and then-mayor Maria Ristow played key roles in salvaging the multi-modal route, in part through holding additional meetings and reworking designs.

Kim says pushback from neighbors is just part of any good public infrastructure debate.

It was during this period that Kim took a trip to Maui.

“We were actually there for a timeshare presentation,” Kim said. “I took my laptop everywhere I went.”

Los Gatos council screenshot
Woojae Kim (top left) and Nicolle Burnham (bottom middle) pictured during an Aug. 16 2022 Council meeting. (Zoom / Town of Los Gatos)

He’d brought it with him to Korea earlier in the year. In Maui, he used it to make sure his team was staying on task.

The Town isn’t trying to claim Kim defrauded taxpayers by filing a false theft report or anything of that nature.

“Defendant took the laptop on vacation and it was stolen on 11/25/22,” Burnham wrote in filing in Santa Clara County Superior Court. “Defendant reported theft to Maui PD and Town. Defendant had indicated he would pay for the laptop from insurance proceeds.”

Kim said someone swiped his hotel key and used it to get into the room.

Marriott International didn’t respond to a request for comment about the theft

Kim said he returned to find that—along with the laptop—$500 and his wife’s wedding ring had vanished.

“It felt like an inside job,” he said.

Kim attempted to go through the Westin Ka’anapali’s insurance, but says its Liberty Mutual coverage refused to shell-out, since his own keycard had been used to gain access to the room.

“It pretty much ruined our whole vacation,” he said. “They claimed it was not the hotel’s fault. Somebody used our key to get into the room.”

The Los Gatan has reached out to Marriott International, Inc., which owns the Westin Brand, about the situation but didn’t receive a response by deadline.

According to the Town, the laptop itself is worth $1,379.04, plus a $235 service plan and a $125.91 environmental fee.

When Kim left, the Town sent him a $1,744.73 invoice, which went unpaid.

On Nov. 3, Los Gatos’ IT manager Sai Kim, as well as Burnham, appeared in Small Claims Court in front of Commissioner Christine Copeland, who also heard evidence from Kim.

In the end she ordered Kim to pay $1,000 for the laptop plus $142.05 to cover additional costs incurred by the Town.

Town staff tap away on work laptops during a recent community meeting.
(Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

Then, on Jan. 2, Kim appealed the $1,142.05 verdict.

Kim says he did a public records request and confirmed the Town doesn’t normally treat staff members who have been victims of theft this way. Plus, he adds, used laptops like his are currently going for about $200-$300 online.

“It really left a bad taste in my mouth,” he said. “It wasn’t even a partial payment they asked for, it was a full (payment demanded).”

Kim says he isn’t sure why Burnham would have valued the Dell computer at such a high price.

“For the Town to actually take me to court for something like that, it wasn’t a good feeling,” he said.

In a Tuesday phone call, Burnham hinted that Kim never produced a police report and suggested the Town only takes legal action when “extenuating circumstances” are involved.

She declined to say whether Kim resigned or was fired.

Kim said it was frustrating to try to deal with the police in Hawaii.

Despite the parting, Kim remains curious about how the Shannon Road project will improve life in the town he once played a pivotal role in designing.

He says he recently swung by to see the results of Blossom Hill Road restriping.

But he’s kept pretty busy with his work up the peninsula.

“We’re a very small team over there,” he said, noting he appreciates how City Manager Peter Pirnejad puts a lot of emphasis on staff retention. “It’s been great. I’ve been there a little over a year. I work with the community a lot.”

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


  1. To be clear, I resigned from the Town of Los Gatos. I do not understand why Nicolle Burnham did not make this clear.

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