Heartwell's Behavior An Organizational Wreck

February 11, 2008
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It was appalling, it was an abuse of power and it was likely greeted with shock by every human resources or business organizational professional in the state. Last week, Grand Rapids City Manager Kurt Kimball announced his selection of a new police chief and the promotion of another to deputy chief — both from within the department. Within hours, Mayor George Heartwell took his disagreement with that choice to television media. Heartwell’s actions are reprehensible and create a shamble of organizational leadership.

The subsequent conflict and assault on morale created between city staff hired to work daily in service to Grand Rapids residents, and especially within the police department, is likely to be long remembered. It handicaps the ability of city staff to work with elected city officials. It resulted in a firestorm within the community.

Heartwell’s actions provide a textbook example of how not to handle personnel issues. It is absent of leadership. Leaders of every company or public entity hire individuals to make day-to-day decisions, often in concert with “the boss.” Creating pandemonium within an organization because of disagreement is self-destructive.

We note, too, that Mayor Heartwell has complained since his first days in office that payment and benefits for his elected position are below his expectations. In recent times, there has not been a mayor in Grand Rapids who did not push for a “strong mayor” form of government, an issue that has been turned back time and again. Based on the mayor’s past actions, it is reasonable to believe Heartwell’s behavior could be a passive-aggressive action to eventually promote himself, a move that should not be supported. The strength of the city manager form of government is that a city manager need not be elected every few years and does not make decisions based on political winds of the moment. Continuity is priceless in assuring that attention is focused on the jobs and work to be completed.

Kimball’s tenure of more than 20 years, generally provide accolades from a variety of mayor bosses. He is considered a national leader among his professional peers. He has a long record of attempting to bridge racial issues in the community. His defense of the city’s affirmative action policies, diversity programs and equal opportunity city bidding programs are not just embraced by one department but by every department. These policies at some times have been legally questioned as a result of Michigan’s passage of Proposal 2 last year and federal court decisions. Kimball has continued to find a way to work within the law while persevering with such initiatives.

We are certain that the mayor and city commissioners had every opportunity to discuss the merits of each candidate for police chief. We are certain the final decision was left to Kimball. We opine here that Kimball’s decision in regard to his selection of Kevin Belk had much to do with the administrative aspects of the chief’s job, including the delicate task of union negotiations. The latter is made more sensitive given the city’s enormous financial constraints.

We also applaud his decision to promote another from the ranks of the Grand Rapids Police Department to assist Belk: Kimball announced the promotion of James Farris to deputy chief. Every organization understands that leaders must begin to “replace themselves” and train the next leader. It seems Belk and Farris each have unique qualities that strengthen the position, the police department and the city.

Kimball could not and should not have made a different decision. 

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