Harper Woods cancels contract with city manager soon after his return from military service

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published June 17, 2021



HARPER WOODS — At a special meeting held on Zoom June 14, the Harper Woods City Council voted 4-3 not to renew the contract of City Manager Joseph Rheker.

Rheker had been away on active military service as part of the Navy Reserve helping to combat the COVID-19 crisis. Upon his return, the vote was held to terminate his contract.

“I don’t think it gets any more un-American than that,” remarked Rheker. “I get recalled to fight all enemies foreign and domestic. I get called up to help respond to COVID-19, and when I come home, day one after I get back, this is the welcome back I receive.”

Complicating the matter is that Rheker’s contract automatically renewed while he was away and the City Council could not renegotiate it until his return. However, United States law states that no civil employee can be fired due to being called up for active-duty service.

“The original agreement stated that on the anniversary of the agreement, March 29, 2021, the agreement may automatically be renewed for an additional three years unless a notice is given to the contrary, 90 days prior to this date. The city manager has been called and has been on active military duty for approximately one year,” acting City Manager John Szymanski said. “As a result of the city manager being on active military service, no action was taken with regard to the agreement until his return. Specifically, the city did not take any action with regard to the 90-day provision since the city manager was on active duty and was unable to attend any meeting that may have been held to discuss the matter. Given the city manager’s return from active service and his expressed intent to return to his position, City Council may consider possible actions based on the agreement including, but not limited to, renewal, modification or non-renewal.”

City Councilwoman Veronica Paiz offered the motion to not renew Rheker’s contract, and it was seconded by Councilwoman Vivian Sawicki. Both later voted to approve the motion. They were joined by Councilman Ivery Toussant and Mayor Valerie Kindle.

“I don’t have a statement other than his non-renewal had nothing to do with his service to the military,” said Kindle. “I am sorry people are trying to make this an issue of military service versus city services. That had nothing to do with it. He was not fired; we just did not renew his contract — that’s it.”

Sawicki said she did not wish to give her reasons publicly for voting for Rheker’s dismissal.

“This is an open meeting, and if I were to voice the reasons why I have a problem with renewing this contract, I believe it would not be in the best interests of an employee,” she said. “I prefer to remain mute on this issue because I don’t think it would be in Mr. Rheker’s favor.”

“Why doesn’t she say what it is about?” Rheker countered. “The other colleagues on the council were asking what the grounds were, and they never had anything of any substance. I addressed many issues in Harper Woods as city manager, and some people didn’t like how I addressed them. They tried to paint a different picture of me while I was gone, and some people believed it.”

Councilwoman Cheryl Costantino voted against the measure to dismiss Rheker and voiced her disapproval of the motion.

“This is just wrong on so many levels. I’m embarrassed we have people on our City Council who don’t understand contracts. I’m embarrassed we have people on our City Council who don’t understand the law, and I’m embarrassed we have people on our City Council who would put our citizens and taxpayers at risk both financially and with the reputation of our city. I’m embarrassed that we have members of our City Council who would be so sneaky and underhanded as to even consider terminating an employee who was on active duty and unable to defend himself.”

Councilwoman Regina Williams and Councilwoman Ernestine Lyons both said they concurred with Costantino.

“I didn’t think this was a fair thing to do considering Mr. Rheker was on active duty and I have yet to hear any real reason for not renewing the contract,” said Williams.

Lyons said that from her understanding, the contract with Rheker had already been renewed, so the council would need a period of time to evaluate Rheker before it could start talk of termination.

“When we agreed to have John Szymanski fill in for Mr. Rheker, that was contingent upon Mr. Rheker returning to work. … I need to hear some reasons that this termination has to happen,” Lyons said.

Kindle countered that Rheker’s time away in the military was not a factor in her casting her vote.

“It had nothing to do with his military service or military time,” Kindle said. “That was ludicrous to even insinuate that. There were issues for a long time prior to that. At this point in time, I am waiting to speak with the city attorney to see what we can say and can’t say. What I can say is that nothing that happened at the meeting had anything to do with his time serving.”

As to the concerns that he was out of contact with the city during his time away, Rheker said that he wrote more than 40 emails to the acting city manager and sent more than 300 text messages to him despite being under no obligation to do so.

Rheker went on to say that he is not sure what his next course of action will be on the matter, but that he does wish to return to his job as city manager and that he is considering possible legal action.

“I am considering legal action. That’s all I want to say at this point,” said Rheker. “I don’t desire to be litigious against my employer. I greatly enjoy my place of work and the Harper Woods community, and I intend on continuing my employment.”

Kindle said the city intends to begin a search for a new city manager.

“We are contacting the Michigan Municipal League to help us get the word out about how to request a new city manager, and then we will be doing a nationwide search for new candidates,” she said. “Mr. Szymanski will return to his position as city finance manager. He is not requesting to become the permanent city manager.”