A concern for trust City manager choice merits outside help.

December 1, 2008
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The Grand Rapids City Commission is extending an invitation to citizens to offer criteria in selecting the next city manager, replacing the retiring Kurt Kimball who has served the city for more than 20 years. Grand Rapids Business Journal is wary of this process, given the city commission’s recent past behavior. Further, the questions posed for citizens’ input veil some of the political agenda of the elected city officials.

Earlier this year the Business Journal called into question why the city even forms advisory councils and authorities, given its outright thwarting of two deliberative bodies’ recommendations. One can easily see this happening in the process in selecting a city manager, a key position in the city and certainly across municipal boundaries as governmental units strive to work together to survive. That, too, is a most important consideration.

In February of this year, two consecutive incidents clearly demonstrated that the city commission and mayor are blind to the integrity of process. First, the city approved — prior to the Downtown Development Authority public meeting — a $1.5 million development assistance package for The Gallery on Fulton project. It effectively quashed pro and con discussion. The DDA is a deliberative body of especially talented individuals and community leaders. One among them, Fifth Third President and CEO Michelle VanDyke, had expressed concern during a DDA meeting prior to the city’s approval that the city was, in effect, making a loan to itself on the Two West Fulton project. The Business Journal is not assessing the merits of the project but the ethical behavior of the commission and mayor.

The Parking Commission has been similarly tackled. Parking Commissioner Daniel Barcheski, CEO of Axios Inc., in his resignation letter from the advisory group two years ago wrote: “The dilemma I referred to earlier is the complete lack of respect we have received from city leadership and the questionable need to have an Auto Parking Commission.”

Barcheski noted the city had bypassed the commission when it entered into months-long negotiations with Split Rock Development V LLC for an underground parking ramp in the Monroe North Business District. “That we weren’t approached absolutely blows my mind,” he wrote. He also noted that the city commission had completely ignored the parking commission’s stipulation that the Gilmore Collection pay for a new appraisal of the 50 Monroe Place property before the city sold it to Gilmore for an expansion of The BOB.

The city commissioners followed up by pulling $359,000 of the parking system revenue into the general fund, even as the parking commission expressed unease about having the city dip into its funds. The Parking Services Department is an enterprise fund receiving no tax dollars from the city and operating on the revenue it raises.

The public deliberations of city advisory groups are too important to put asunder, and so, too, is the dedication of community residents who serve. The impression left is that the deliberations are in backroom deals that sustain the “who you know” theory of doing business with the city. That seems in opposition to the rhetoric of city leaders who say they seek to be inclusive, and it portends political favor.

Also in February, City Manager Kimball announced his selection of a new police chief. Within hours, Mayor George Heartwell took his disagreement with that choice to television media. Heartwell’s actions, and those of like-minded commissioners, were reprehensible and create a shamble of organizational leadership. Creating pandemonium within an organization because of disagreement is self-destructive.

Mayor Heartwell has complained since his first days in office that payment and benefits for his elected position are below his expectations. His complaints have ranged from lack of administrative help to the benefit of a city vehicle. 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 by citizens, and by a wide margin. Such an arrangement gives the mayor all control of city staff and day-to-day decisions. Based on the mayor’s past actions, it is reasonable to believe his behavior is a passive aggressive way 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.

It would behoove the commission to seek the professional help so obviously needed in hiring for this position.

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