Clawson fires city manager in 2-1 vote

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published August 23, 2021

 Smith

Smith

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CLAWSON — During a special meeting Aug. 10, the Clawson City Council approved a resolution terminating City Manager Michael Smith.

The single agenda item was to consider “going into closed session to perform an evaluation of the City Manager.” Smith, however, requested the city conduct the evaluation in open session.

The council consisted of voting members Mayor Reese Scripture, Mayor Pro Tem Lou Samson and Councilwoman Susan Moffitt, as well as newly appointed members and former Planning Commissioners Glenn Shepard and George Georges.

City Attorney Renis Nushaj advised that Shepard and Georges could not vote on the termination. Both men resigned their positions on the Planning Commission because they are running for City Council in the Nov. 2 election.

The city’s charter mandates that elected or appointed officials — barring the city attorney or health officer — who run for other elected office in the city must resign their duties. In the same vein, Mayor Pro Tem Paula Millan and Councilwoman Kathy Phillips resigned because they are both running for mayor in November.

During a special meeting July 26, the three council members accepted the four resignations and, in a 2-1 vote with Moffitt against, appointed Shepard and Georges to replace the vacancies on council until the election.

During Smith’s evaluation, Moffitt cast the vote against terminating him.

Georges said the purpose of the meeting and evaluation was due to a policy stipulating that a $10,000 performance bonus was dependent on evaluation by council. Samson added that the evaluation was beholden to a time frame within a year of Smith’s employment with the city.

In a 3-2 vote Aug. 5, 2020, the council approved a contract agreement with Smith, the former city clerk, for the position of city manager. Smith was one of six final candidates from a pool of 273 applicants from around the country. Millan and Moffitt cast the two “no” votes. Moffitt disagreed with the proposed dual function of Smith serving as both city manager and clerk, while Millan said, “He’s going to need a magic wand in order to get things done.”

Smith left his position as city clerk with the city of Clawson after nine years to serve as village administrator for the village of Wolverine Lake in March 2019.

Samson read from a prepared document his reasons for making a motion to terminate Smith during the Aug. 10 special meeting. He faulted Smith for not being “open and transparent” in his communication with council; not being abreast of “major events” when out of town; and not executing directives proposed by council, such as a kiosk for the public to do city business electronically.

Scripture seconded Samson’s motion to fire Smith. She also read from prepared remarks and said Smith’s shortcomings included not making movement on goals and objectives identified in work sessions, such as addressing infrastructure needs and budget concerns, and improving leadership and stability.

“I just want to point out that this is our fourth city manager in less than two years. I have never, ever, ever had a problem getting an answer from (Smith),” Moffitt said. “I would like to point out things that did happen.”

She said Smith maintained essential city business, such as the collection of taxes, issuing of permits and departments functioning as they should.

“We got through a pandemic. Benefits for employees were received. Paychecks were received. Vendors were paid,” Moffitt said and then addressed Smith personally. “You have endured belittling. You have endured criticism. You have endured a lot of hostility with grace and professionalism, and I compliment you on the things you’ve accomplished and the way you’ve conducted yourself in the past year.”

Smith praised the staff and said he felt like he succeeded in many matters, such as filling vacancies with qualified and professional individuals. He also praised city staff for their commitment to the daily operations of the city and that he cared for them and the city.

“We know that no one is perfect. There are things I can work on. Those are things I’ll be working on the rest of my life,” he said. “It just comes down to a difference of opinion, a difference of personality — however you want to frame it.”

During the public comment portion, Clawson resident Susan Phillips said taxpayers in the city cringe when they hear about another evaluation of a city employee that may go into closed session.

“Our concern is that Clawson has gained a reputation of being hard on employees, which is the reason for such rapid turnover,” Phillips said. “Every time there is a turnover, it costs the taxpayers more in severance pay and training a new employee. This is becoming quite expensive.”

Three days later, the council reconvened for two more meetings on Aug. 13 — a special meeting and a workshop. Moffitt was absent. In prior meetings, she stated that she does not do anything on “Friday the 13th.”

The items on the first meeting agenda included a self-review of the council’s “actions in CM hiring and oversight,” a review of hiring an agency for an interim replacement, and “any other business.”

Council agreed that it needed to have more robust policies in place to provide direction for future city managers, as well as a better handle on the city’s budget and finances.

Millan, given the opportunity to speak on the first item as a recent member of council, said she felt certain council members placed unreasonable expectations on Smith when staff and resources were “light.” Moving forward, she encouraged the council to be more compassionate and empathetic.

Scripture said Clawson Police Chief Scott Sarvello, who currently also serves as assistant city manager, indicated that he would be willing to take on the role of interim city manager until a permanent replacement could be secured. She added that doing so would be cheaper than hiring a government temp agency to fill the interim role.

The council voted unanimously to appoint Sarvello as the interim city manager and authorize Nushaj to negotiate a contract with Sarvello.

Despite Nushaj’s recommendation against it, the council also passed a motion directing Sarvello, who was on a planned vacation for the next two weeks, to rehire former Department of Public Works Director Matt Hodges immediately. Smith had fired Hodges days before the council terminated Smith.

Nushaj said the motion was “aspirational” because it is the interim city manager’s purview whether to hire or not to hire. It passed in a 3-1 vote, with Shepard against.

The second meeting Aug. 13 was a workshop with Lauren Trible-Laucht, city attorney for Traverse City and former assistant city attorney in Clawson, to provide a training session on the roles of council members and the city manager, as well as the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act.

“You can’t direct the city manager’s staff,” Trible-Laucht said. “There’s a balance that has to be maintained because in our form of government, we have council to set policy (by a majority, which is three) and the manager to carry it out.”

Personnel falls under the purview of the city manager, she said.

During public comment before the regular Aug. 17 City Council meeting, Millan said the council acted out of its purview in directing the interim city manager to rehire a terminated employee.

Scripture agreed that it was a “bad vote” and made a motion to rescind the resolution, which passed unanimously. She then put forward a resolution to ask Sarvello to review the termination of Hodges and take appropriate action.

The motion passed 4-1, with Moffitt casting her vote as “a million times no.”

“Council can ask, but (Sarvello) has no obligation to deliver that information and it’s not a violation of anyone’s duties,” Moffitt said. “Some of these things being asked are not the City Council’s right to know nor the City Council’s right to dictate.”

During the public comment at the meeting, former Clawson City Manager Mark Pollock, a resident of the city, said he could not question the council’s authority to fire Smith but he was “(disgusted) with the continued discussion and pre-planned decisions that go on in private between members of this council who have lost sight of what they were elected to do for the voters of this proud city.”

Nik Stepnitz, who has worked in the City Manager’s Office for the last two years, addressed residents of the city.

“I understand that the last two years have been rough and there has been a lot of turnover, a lot of new staff and a lot of new faces,” Stepnitz said. “I just want to say that every single one of (the city employees) … we’re out doing all we can to make sure your services are provided honestly and ethically.”

City Clerk August Gitschlag reiterated that City Hall is open and running.

“All department heads talk every day, and if citizens have any problems, call us,” Gitschlag said. “The wheels are still in motion.”

To view city meetings, visit youtube.com and search for “City of Clawson.”

The next City Council meeting is set for 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7.

For more information, call Clawson City Hall at (248) 435-4500 or visit cityofclawson.com.

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