Harper Woods City Council discusses city manager contract

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published December 18, 2020



HARPER WOODS — The Harper Woods City Council was faced with an unusual situation at its recent regular meeting Dec. 7 regarding the employment contract of City Manager Joseph Rheker.

Rheker was hired nearly three years ago after serving as assistant city manager for Harper Woods. In February, he was called up to active military service in the Naval Reserve and has been serving since then with Finance Manager John Szymanski serving as acting city manager.

No council member expressed dissatisfaction with Rheker’s service to the city and they all expressed their understanding for his military service. However, with Rheker’s current contract approaching its end, the council discussed how to address maintaining his employment with him absent and the contract stating it would renew automatically for an additional three years if no action was taken.

“This is about the contract and not about the person,” said Councilwoman Veronica Paiz. “My concerns are that given the contract will renew on March 29 unless there is 90 days prior notice, which would be Dec. 21, I want to ensure we are addressing deadlines correctly. If we don’t give this 90 days notice, and the city manager not being here to discuss, we as a council should address it before it is automatically renewed without us having any sort of input. … I want to make sure we don’t have something go for another three years just because we don’t talk about it.”

Other council members expressed their concerns that altering the contract or even addressing it in Rheker’s absence would not only be unethical but potentially illegal.

“Changing a contract while someone is away in military service is not only a federal offense, it’s simply not cool,” remarked Councilwoman Cheryl Costantino.

“It is a federal offense to terminate someone who is deployed in service to their country,” added City Councilwoman Ernestine Lyons.

Councilwoman Regina Williams said that some on council were concerned about the contract being extended automatically, although she expressed her satisfaction at Rheker’s service to the city so far.

“The contract renews automatically for another three years unless we step in,” she explained. “If there was nothing negative in his record, there should not be an issue in renewing his contract. … If there were ever a reason to terminate his employment later, we could also do so at a later date.”

Mayor Valerie Kindle said the issue is not the positive track record of Rheker or his absence due to his military service, only that she wanted to ensure the city is not backed into a corner and having decisions made for it, especially since the council members changing their minds later could result in a significant cost to the city.

“We got some backlash once people found out we wanted to talk about this 90-day period,” she said. “The contract says, ‘This agreement may not be waived, changed, modified, abandoned or terminated in whole or in part except with (the presence of) the employer and employee.’ We’re not in a position to do that because the city manager is not available. I don’t want to get caught up in a three-year (extension) when the only way out is to pay six months’ severance.”

City Councilwoman Vivian Sawicki suggested extending Rheker’s contract to sidestep these complications.

“The city manager has been out since at least Feb. 18, which is six and a half months right now,” she said. “His contract is up on March 29, so I am proposing … instead of violating any protections he might have, we should put his contract on hold to allow for all his service time. He has been out for 203 days, so I would suggest we extend the contract date by the 203 days he’s been gone.”

However, Harper Woods City Attorney Sharon DeWaele-Persichini said this was not legally an option in regard to Rheker’s contract.

“We cannot extend it by 200 days. It would be unilaterally modifying the contract without the other party present,” she said.

She went on to say that federal law is very solid about not allowing someone to lose their job due to military service, and contract law is very firm about not changing a contract without the other party present. This then leaves Harper Woods with no option but to allow the 90-day period to pass.

“Federal law states you cannot terminate someone due to military service,” said DeWaele-Persichini. “When we drafted this contract, we knew it was possible he could be called up for active duty. Those folks who serve have a right to come back to their position. The problem is there is this 90-day notice if there is not going to be an extension of contract (and) we cannot modify the contract without him present.”

She suggested that no decision be made by council, since whatever was decided could be construed as a violation of Rheker’s contract. Upon hearing this advice, the council agreed to let the matter rest.