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Clawson city manager resigns after less than a year on the job

‘We have some serious problems in Clawson’

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published January 20, 2020

 Erin Irwin

Erin Irwin

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CLAWSON — On Jan. 14, the Clawson City Council convened for a special meeting to address the resignation of City Manager Erin Irwin and the city’s next steps.

During the special meeting, many council members expressed feeling blindsided by the resignation. The previous council unanimously had voted to extend an offer to Irwin to serve as city manager on March 19, 2019.

Mayor Reese Scripture, who defeated former Mayor Deborah Wooley in the Nov. 5 election, said she contacted each member of council individually to ask what their votes would be in terms of Irwin’s continued employment with the city.

“I had grave concerns about a number of items that were coming to not just my attention, but many people’s attention,” Scripture said. “I asked for what their vote would be, got my responses, did not share those responses, approached Mr. Irwin and asked him if he would consider resigning.”

She said she told Irwin that she did not feel he was a good fit and offered him the opportunity to resign “in an attempt of allowing him to do so with dignity and some privacy.”

Councilwoman Susan Moffitt said she did not think the result of Scripture’s individual polling would be for her to approach Irwin and ask for his resignation. Councilwoman Paula Millan also expressed concerns with the manner in which Scripture handled the matter. She said her conversation with Scripture took place Friday, Jan. 10.

“I was really surprised to know that it took place yesterday (Monday, Jan. 13),” Millan said. “What I really didn’t like about this is it is very reminiscent to me of what occurred a year ago. People were up in arms. The only difference is that this is a person who doesn’t have ties to the community and does not have a 20-year tenure with the city.”

On Nov. 20, 2018, the council approved a separation agreement between itself and City Manager Mark Pollock in a 4-1 vote. Pollock had worked for more than 18 years as the city’s finance director, and as the city manager for the last nine years.

Former City Attorney Jon Kingsepp said at the time that the separation agreement came about “very quickly” and he and Pollock negotiated the terms over a 24-hour period. City officials declined to comment on the situation, saying the agreement bound all parties from further comment.

Scripture said the significant difference this time was that “there was not a series of closed, illegal sessions held to have many discussions about that prior to the termination of the prior city manager.”

Millan said she thought the council should have a conversation, even if it was during an open meeting, about the issue.

“I think people matter. I think process matters, and I’m just really upset about this right now,” Millan said. “There should have been conversations so that we know what the egregious errors were on his part.”

Councilman Louis Samson said he believed Scripture gave Irwin a choice, to which Millan quickly retorted that he was not given a choice.

“I don’t think he was qualified from the get-go,” said Councilwoman Kathy Phillips, who also was elected in November. She previously served on council from 2007 to 2015.

In a 4-1 vote — Millan voted no — the council voted to accept Irwin’s letter of resignation and authorize City Attorney Renis Nushaj to negotiate a separation agreement between both parties.

Nushaj said he spoke with Irwin, who said he will have an attorney submit a proposal to the city.

“Any negotiated outcome, within a very reasonable range, obviously, I will present back to City Council,” he said.

Irwin took over the position of city manager from Richard Haberman, who served a three-month stint as interim city manager after Pollock’s departure. Haberman served as city manager of Clawson for almost four years before leaving in 2009, citing “personal reasons,” according to Wooley.

Irwin did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

 

Internal appointments
During the Jan. 14 special meeting, the council voted 3-2 to appoint Director of Recreation and Senior Services Kathy Leenhouts to the position of interim city manager for a term of up to one year. It also voted 3-2 to appoint Police Chief Scott Sarvello to the new position of assistant city manager.

Both motions authorized Nushaj to negotiate employment agreements between the city and Leenhouts and Sarvello. Millan and Moffitt cast the two no votes on both items.

Scripture said both Leenhouts and Sarvello would continue to lead their respective departments, but Leenhouts had already been working on a transition plan for her department because she was looking to retire at the end of the year.

Millan asked what made Leenhouts interested in the position and if anyone else was considered.

“I approached her and asked her,” Scripture said. “There were definitely options to explore. Some of those options panned out to be no longer options for a number of reasons, and I honestly approached her because I think she does a very good job at what she does.”

Scripture said she believes Leenhouts has the skills Clawson needs to navigate some “extreme challenges.”

“I do not think that Clawson is an appealing city to attract a city manager due to the last adventure that we were on, where we went with an interim and the entire budget had to be redone and nothing got done and everything was chaos,” she said. “We have some serious problems in Clawson, and they have been building for a very long time.”

Scripture said a few of the items Clawson must consider right away are finding a permanent city clerk and a replacement in the Building Department when Jim Albus retires Feb. 2.

“We are about to enter probably one of the biggest election years in the history (of the city),” she said. “We’ll have three elections, and that is going to be an incredible amount of work.”

Scripture said she wanted to include the yearlong clause in the appointment to add a sense of stability for budgeting and to reassure city staff.

Moffitt said she was opposed to the yearlong term because it did not look like stability to her and the move was not decided as a council. She said she would rather not put a timeline on the temporary position so council could assess the situation and make strategic plans together.

Phillips added that Leenhouts has the respect of the city’s employees and staff.

“I think Kathy has a great head on her shoulders. She’s well respected and she knows what she’s doing, so as an interim city manager, I am 110% for her,” Phillips said.

Leenhouts, in a Jan. 15 phone interview with C & G Newspapers, said she never aspired to be city manager.

“Everyone’s just pitching in to do what needs to be done to move forward positively,” she said. “Everybody is well aware Clawson has a lot of changeover and a lot of things happening, and council is trying to get everything in a good place again, and this was their plan.”

She praised the city’s department heads and said they are working together during this transitional period.

“I have worked for the city for about 20 years. I also live here, so at least I have some experience and a feel for the city of Clawson. I care very deeply for it,” Leenhouts said. “Mr. Iwin called a meeting Monday at 4:30 to let us know that he was resigning. … He was done Monday and said he would not be back.”

She said this resignation did not shock her.

“Honestly, if you’ve worked here in the city in the last year and a half, nothing is really shocking. We were shocked when Mark got let go,” she said. “We need to work together to look positively toward the future and get the right people in the right positions and the right skill set and move forward.”

Scripture said the creation of an assistant city manager position is based partially on similar models in other cities, as well as a desire from Leenhouts to work with a partner.

Moffitt said she would prefer the assistant city manager position be temporary to help Leenhouts in her new role.

“We already know from the budget and the fact that we are broke that we’re going to have to look at (some reorganization),” Scripture said. “We are a city where … everybody rolls up their sleeves and has actual things they have to do and multiple roles.”

Millan said she would like to see Nikalas Stepnitz, administrative assistant in the City Manager’s Office, promoted to assistant city manager.

 

Looking ahead
While Scripture did not want a request for proposals for the position of city manager on the agenda, Moffitt said she thought it would be “foolhardy” and “negligent” to not begin a search process immediately.

“A year is not a lot of time, and if we are up against all the barriers, the sooner we get started, the sooner we can get someone in place after a year,” Moffitt said.

Millan said the city should define what it wants in a city manager, as well as how the position fits in with the city’s system, and bring in someone who benefits Clawson.

“Part of our problem is we need to mentor our people,” she said. “We were negligent in communicating our goals and expectations, and I would like to see that not happen again, not only for our sake, but for the individual put in as the next city manager.”

In a 3-2 vote, the council removed a motion, as proposed on the agenda, to consider issuing an RFP for the position of city manager, with Moffitt and Millan against. It then voted unanimously to approve a motion to work on an RFP for the position of city manager at a future workshop, to be set at a future date.

The next Clawson City Council meeting took place Jan. 21, after press time. The following City Council meeting will take place at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4 at Clawson City Hall, 425 N. Main St., north of 14 Mile Road.

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