Council chooses former councilman as interim finance director

By: April Lehmbeck | Advertiser Times | Published June 1, 2015

HARPER WOODS — Former City Councilman John Szymanski will be working for the city in a different manner now that he has been chosen as the city’s interim finance director/treasurer.

The City Council voted 6-1 for Szymanski to fill a vacancy left by the resignation of Laura Stowell, who accepted a post in St. Clair Shores.

In a memo to the City Council, City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk mentioned a need for expediency in naming an interim to the position, since the city is in the process of finishing up its annual audit, dealing with tax season, and making major changes to pension administration.

“He is outstandingly qualified,” Mayor Ken Poynter said of the appointment. “We’re fortunate to have him.”

Poynter said Szymanski was a longtime member of the City Council, so he understands city operations in Harper Woods.

He said that he believes Szymanski will do an outstanding job for the city in the new post.

Szymanski’s résumé includes experience as chief of payroll operations and project consultant for Wayne County. He had 18 years in that upper-level position for Wayne County.

He also served five terms as a councilman.

Skotarczyk stated that Szymanski has a “wealth of experience and an intimate familiarity with the operations of the city of Harper Woods.”

After Stowell’s resignation, Szymanski’s name came up during discussions with the city’s auditing firm, Plante Moran, because he had been interviewing with the firm for a position in government accounting that would have meant he would be working with distressed cities in southeast Michigan.

“My getting the job of finance director/treasurer came as a surprise,” Szymanski said in an email.

“I would have been performing many of the same functions that I am doing at Harper Woods and much that is required by federal, state and/or other compliance agency statute(s),” he said of the position he was seeking at Plante Moran. “Many of these distressed cities have been ravished by the economic downturn of recent years and have cut positions vital to financial reporting. In some cases, not budgeting cash properly to make payrolls or pay taxes.”

With the departure of Stowell, Harper Woods would be missing a “critical employee at a critical time and replacements, according to our city auditors, are few and far between,” Skotarczyk stated in the memo.

After talks between the city and auditing firm, Szymanski was called at his home about the position.

“All felt I had the necessary educational background and experience, combined with the sensitivities of a long-standing elected official, coupled with being a proud city resident,” Szymanski said. “The success of the city is also my success, as well.

“The choice was an easy one to make,” he added. “Either work for a collection of distressed cities governed by state emergency management boards, dysfunctional city councils and/or consent agreements, or come work for the city of Harper Woods. I easily chose Harper Woods! We have a professional City Council and professional city employees. What a great combination! I couldn’t be prouder! I am going to work super hard in this position and do whatever it takes to be successful and continue the city’s rebound going forward.”

Councilwoman Veronica Paiz voted against the appointment.  She said she questioned Szymanski’s leadership skills, citing issues with a letter to the editor from Szymanski concerning her wanting to continue serving on the library board and City Council despite a legal opinion that the offices are incompatible. That issue has since been resolved; Paiz resigned from her post on the library board.

“His recent letter to the editor was unnecessarily pejorative and libelous towards me and half of council when he implied that I and two other council persons are corrupt,” she said in an email. “When I learned that Mr. Szymanski was seeking appointment, I was reminded that he also serves on our city Planning Commission. It’s my belief that Mr. Szymanski, as a city representative, should have used some discretion and diplomacy and instead expressed his contempt at a City Council meeting, rather than a passive-aggressive display in the local news.

“This indicated to me his mistrust of council and, in turn, that he had no expectation of working with the full council in moving this city forward,” she said. “It also indicated (a) lack of professionalism, which portends similar problems as a city employee. I certainly believe Mr. Szymanski’s words and actions would be unacceptable in other employment circumstances or if they had been directed to our mayor.”

Paiz said that Szymanski apologized to her and spoke to her after the meeting, and he “gave every indication that he intends to work in the best interests of this city.”

“I take Mr. Szymanski at his word and hope for the best for him and our city,” she said. 

“My concerns were addressed and somewhat alleviated,” she added.

Szymanski said he did apologize to Paiz, and that he “shook hands and made amends.” 

“We are moving forward and all are working together on behalf of the city,” he said. “This job is a big one and very critical to city operations. It takes an experienced finance director in government about a year before problems can even be identified. I am blessed with the great work efforts of our current finance director and the intimate institutional knowledge from my many years on the council and the outstanding leadership of our mayor, City Council, city manager, city clerk and the talented employees of Harper Woods. I hope to experience a much shorter learning curve.”