Retired city manager denies city’s counteroffer for contractual position

Officials to review executive search firms

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published August 7, 2019

 Donald Johnson, who retired as city manager in June, recently denied a city counteroffer to work as interim city manager.

Donald Johnson, who retired as city manager in June, recently denied a city counteroffer to work as interim city manager.

File photo by Deb Jacques

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ROYAL OAK — Longtime Royal Oak City Manager Donald Johnson’s June 30 retirement sent the city scrambling to determine a path moving forward.

Johnson offered a caveat in his retirement letter, tendered 30 days before, that he would be willing to stay on as a consultant or in a contractual position, and he worked with City Attorney David Gillam to iron out a potential contract.

On July 29, the City Commission held a special meeting to discuss the contract, which proposed a flat rate of $18,000 per month, with no benefits, until the end of the year or until the city hired a permanent city manager, whichever came first.

After discussion, the City Commission ultimately voted 5-2, with Commissioner Kim Gibbs and Commissioner Randy LeVasseur against, to offer a counteroffer of $14,000. The counteroffer also addressed a concern with severance pay and the rate for witness testimony.

Gillam called Johnson after the meeting to tell him the result of the meeting, and he said Johnson told him he had been livestreaming the meeting.

“He was aware of the discussion and he indicated he was not interested in the terms,” Gillam said. “I can’t speak for him, but yesterday in the mail I received from him his city cellphone, the keys to City Hall and some other city property, so I think from Don’s perspective, the discussion is over.”

Gillam added that he hoped the residents and business owners in the city would remember all of the positive things Johnson accomplished during his 14-year career with the city, in which he served as city manager for the past decade and as finance director before that.

“I would hate for the last memory for them to have of Don is that he couldn’t reach an agreement,” he said. “He did an awful lot of positive things while he was here, and it’s unfortunate that he and the commission couldn’t agree on something.”

The next step will be for a subcommittee tasked with managing the city manager executive search to meet. The subcommittee, comprising Mayor Pro Tem Sharlan Douglas, Commissioner Melanie Macey and Gibbs, is set to meet at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7, in conference room 309 of Royal Oak City Hall.

The agenda includes a discussion of the interim city manager position, as well as a review of proposals for executive search services for the position of city manager. The RFPs are due the day before, on Aug. 6.

In Johnson’s absence, Royal Oak Police Chief and Assistant City Manager Corrigan O’Donohue has been filling in as acting city manager.

During the July 29 meeting, more than a dozen residents spoke against approval of the proposed contract during the public comment portion of the meeting, which took place before the regular agenda. One resident spoke in favor of keeping Johnson on at the proposed rate.

Several residents expressed the sentiment that $18,000 per month was an exorbitant fee, and they raised the point that Johnson is already receiving a pension of $5,000 per month. Others felt that city officials could take on Johnson’s roles and responsibilities until the selection of a new city manager.

When asked how Johnson came up with the figure of $18,000 per month, Gillam said Johnson felt the sum equated to roughly what his total compensation package was when he was city manager, including salary and benefits.

In the upcoming fiscal year, he said, Johnson was set to receive $190,000 in terms of $145,000 in salary and the rest for other benefits, primarily medical coverage.

Gillam added that, based on his discussions with other municipal attorneys in the state, the general salary of an interim city manager, excluding benefits, is approximately $10,000-$12,000 per month.

O’Donohue said that he has received a “tremendous” amount of support and help from department heads and that the interim city manager job and the police chief job are both “big,” “full-time” jobs.

“It does seem to make sense to put somebody in place and have them focus on that job solely,” he said. “We have a lot going on in the city with all the developments and things like that. It’s not a normal time for the Police Department. We’re coming into our big time with our festivals, so it’s a challenge.”

Macey questioned if existing staff knew and understood the workings of the city to a degree that an interim city manager would not be necessary.

“If the question is if staff could figure it out and limp us along, I think the answer is ‘yes.’ Are we going to be firing on all cylinders like we should and the residents deserve? No, we’re not going to be,” O’Donohue said.

Mayor Michael Fournier praised O’Donohue, calling him “one of the best assets this city has.” He credited the men and women of the Police Department, under O’Donohue’s leadership, as the reason Royal Oak is one of the safest cities in the country.

Fournier also said that the city has 308 employees, down from 350-360 employees years ago, who are “already doing more work for less pay.”

“I think it’s really hard to ask somebody to do two jobs for a long period of time,” he said. “Stretching and spreading (the city manager position) over 10% of everybody’s job doesn’t serve us well.”

LeVasseur said he felt Johnson was “playing us” by giving the city 30 days notice prior to his retirement, followed by proposing to come on contractually. He said he thought it set a poor precedent for other department heads and that city staff should assume the responsibilities until the city hires a replacement.

“I will take exception to anyone arguing that Mr. Johnson had a scheme in mind or was attempting to hoodwink the city,” Fournier said. “I think it’s reckless to demean someone’s character without even having the opportunity to speak to Mr. Johnson.”

Royal Oak City Hall is located at 211 Williams St., near South Troy and East Third streets.

For more information, visit www.romi.gov or call City Hall at (248) 246-3000.

Call Staff Writer Sarah Wojcik at (586) 218-5006.

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