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Royal Oak selects Paul Brake to be city manager

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published March 18, 2020

 Paul Brake, city manager of Morgantown, West Virginia, interviews for the position of Royal Oak city manager at Royal Oak City Hall March 12. On March 16, the Royal Oak City Commission unanimously voted to conditionally offer the job to Brake.

Paul Brake, city manager of Morgantown, West Virginia, interviews for the position of Royal Oak city manager at Royal Oak City Hall March 12. On March 16, the Royal Oak City Commission unanimously voted to conditionally offer the job to Brake.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

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ROYAL OAK — On March 16, the Royal Oak City Commission unanimously voted to extend an offer of employment to city manager finalist Paul Brake, the city manager of Morgantown, West Virginia.

Interim City Manager David Gillam said the offer is conditional based on a full background investigation, physical examination and successful negotiation of a contract. The goal, Gillam said, is to approve a contract agreement as soon as the next City Commission meeting March 30.

Brake bested Lathrup Village City Administrator Sheryl Mitchell and Oak Park City Manager Erik Tungate after the three competed in a second round of interviews March 12, but the City Commission made it clear that the caliber of the candidates made the decision difficult.

Prior to the second round of interviews, candidates had the opportunity to interact with department heads and city employees, and while the city canceled its public meet and greet due to COVID-19 concerns, Gillam said many residents provided online feedback.

“It was an extraordinarily hard decision,” Mayor Pro Tem Patricia Paruch said. “We’re talking about hairbreadths.”

Paruch said the tipping point for her was that, based on her gut feeling, Brake was best prepared to lead the city through whatever comes next due to the COVID-19 emergency.

“Things have so radically changed in the last 24 hours. The world has essentially turned upside down,” Paruch said. “We need someone with long-term experience in dealing with multiple, multiple actors within the community, with a calm demeanor, with just a good concept of how we all need to work together in order to make things happen, in order to make things right again.”

She said she felt Brake is the best choice primarily because of his experience, as well as his work in a community effectively the same size as Royal Oak that grows to Royal Oak’s population when West Virginia University is in session.

Paruch said she also was impressed with Brake’s approach to community communications, value on neighborhood input in major decisions, and emphasis on environmental sustainability.

Commissioner Sharlan Douglas said Brake hit her four priorities: employee relations, strategic communications, planning with an emphasis on attainable housing, and seniors.

“Of those (employees) who provided comment cards, we had 12 positive comments about the three candidates, and seven praised Mr. Brake completely, without prompting. I thought that was promising,” Douglas said. “To me, Paul Brake’s 24 years of specific experience make him the superior candidate.”

Commissioner Melanie Macey, Commissioner Kyle DuBuc and Mayor Michael Fournier also backed Brake as their top candidate, and while commissioners Kim Gibbs and Randy LeVasseur named Tungate as their first choice, they supported Douglas’ motion to choose Brake.

“I think Mr. Brake would be a tremendous choice,” LeVasseur said. “I will support the motion because I think it’s important to show confidence in the new person you’re going to hire, even though I’ve expressed that Mr. Tungate would have been my choice.”

Fournier said the city will face challenging times ahead, not only with the health impact of COVID-19, but also the economic impact. 

“We saw the (Dow Jones Industrial Average) plummet 3,000 points,” he said. “We’ve done a pretty darn good job with the staff that we’ve had preparing as best we can, so I'm confident that, if this vote goes well, Mr. Brake will take over a city that is in the best possible shape.”

Brake expressed a strong interest in returning to Michigan and has roots in the state.

During his second-round interview, Brake said he worked in Michigan at the township, city and county levels, and also worked in an office in downtown Royal Oak, where he was “struck by the vibrancy” of the community.

“I truly believe that the skills that I’ve learned through strategic planning, citizen outreach, equity inclusion, sustainability and fiscal stewardship are a strong match for what you need,” Brake said. “My collaborative work style and stakeholder engagement experience have really given me the ability to be successful in the role that I’ve taken in local government management.”

The catalyst of the city manager search was the departure of former City Manager Don Johnson, who retired June 30 after nearly 14 years with the city. He held the position of city manager for the past decade, and before that, served as the finance director.

On March 2, the Mount Clemens City Commission appointed Johnson to serve as the Mount Clemens city manager. 

According to his employee agreement, Johnson will earn a $125,000 annual salary, as well as a $350 per month vehicle allowance, unrestricted use of a cellphone and laptop, four weeks of paid vacation, up to $1,000 per year for educational expenses, health benefits, life insurance, and retiree insurance.

Johnson briefly entertained the notion of returning to work as the Royal Oak city manager until the city could find a replacement, but the Royal Oak City Commission denied his proposed flat rate of $18,000 per month July 29, and he subsequently rejected the city’s counteroffer of $14,000.

On Sept. 23, the city hired GovHR as the executive search firm to assist in hiring a new city manager at a cost not to exceed $19,500. The executive search brought in 114 applications from both local and national candidates.

DuBuc said he was pleasantly surprised with the process of choosing a new city manager, from the consultant the city hired to the quality of the candidates and the interview process.

“This has not been as painful as I would have thought,” he said. “This is a huge decision. This is such a big deal for our city.”

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