Amid protests, city manager awarded raise, new contract

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 4, 2019

 City Manager Joe Valentine

City Manager Joe Valentine

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BIRMINGHAM — Most of the folks gathered in Birmingham City Hall Oct. 28 agreed that City Manager Joe Valentine does a great job. Lots of them were in favor of a proposed 3% raise, which was part of the consent agenda for the regularly scheduled City Commission meeting that evening.

But not all could agree that the 23-year veteran of the city of Birmingham should have an extension added to the severance clause of his contract, dictating that Valentine would receive 24 months of pay in the event the city terminated his employment without cause.

With a packed audience, the commission moved the item reviewing Valentine’s contract with the city from the consent agenda to be discussed. Following fervent discussions on social media, many residents came to the meeting to oppose the lengthy severance package dubbed by a resident and City Commission candidate as a “golden parachute.”

But Commissioner Stuart Sherman began the discussion that evening by reminding protesters repeatedly that the 24 months’ worth of salary and benefits for Valentine could only be issued in the event the city manager was fired by the commission without proper cause, which would be its burden to prove.

“Having been through two searches over the course of the last number of years for a city manager, I know what the market is and I know what the talent pool is,” Sherman said. “We also know the city manager is not being compensated as other city managers are.”

Before the vote, Valentine was making $130,570 per year with the promise of termination severance pay for six months. Proposed on the consent agenda was a 3% raise to bring compensation to $134,487 and an amendment to the termination provision to extend payment to 24 months.

Several residents spoke during public comment about the amendment, calling it out of line with similar contracts.

“My disagreement has nothing to do with Joe. It’s about what’s reasonable,” said resident Brad Coulter. “Six to 12 months is what’s reasonable. … If the answer is more pay in lieu of a shorter severance, I think that’s the prudent thing to do.”

Former Birmingham Mayor Dianne McKeon objected too, explaining that she believes Valentine is doing a fine job — in fact, she thinks his current pay is “inadequate.” But she disagreed with the severance extension.

“I was disappointed this was put on the consent agenda,” she stated. “The 24-month severance package is unacceptable to me, and I like Joe Valentine.”

Matt Bach, the director of communications for the Michigan Municipal League, declined to comment on industry standards for manager compensation throughout the state. He said wage and salary survey records are available to league members only, though they contain only data from municipalities that volunteer that information.

Commissioner Mark Nickita jumped in to explain further that the contract Valentine was working under was one built when former City Manager Tom Markus retired and newcomer Bob Bruner was hired in to proceed him. Valentine was appointed as city manager in 2014 after the commission decided not to renew Bruner’s contract.

“Bob was relatively new, so we took that severance package down to accommodate that, because we didn’t know what we were getting,” Nickita explained. “Tom Markus’ (compensation) was near what we have put forth tonight. There’s only a few months difference. This was for many years the standard of what he had. What we’re putting forth today is essentially a correction. In my mind, we’re doing what we should have been doing.”

Commissioners Carroll DeWeese and Andrew Harris agreed with Nickita, saying they felt Valentine’s work was undercompensated given the level of his responsibility. DeWeese said that the discussions on social media discrediting the city manager’s performance were misdirected.

“There are a number of people that disagree with the policies of the City Commission. But the city manager responds to what the City Commission asks him to do, and Joe has been exceptional at responding,” DeWeese said.

“It’s misplaced to be focusing that upon this position. This position should be apolitical. If you agree or disagree, focus that on the commission, not the people working under it.”

Mayor Pro Tem Pierre Boutros said he too supported the proposal and Valentine’s performance, which was recently evaluated by the commission in closed session. He added, however, that he would rather push the decision to another meeting, when the full commission is in attendance. Mayor Patty Bordman and Commissioner Rackeline Hoff were absent.

To postpone the decision to another meeting would mean the vote would be in the hands of a new commission, one that may or may not include incumbents Boutros, DeWeese and Bordman, who were running for reelection.

Instead, the commission voted 5-0 to approve the one-year compensation package for Valentine, which is retroactive to July 1.

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