As East Lansing’s City Council turns its attention to a search for a new city manager, Mayor Ron Bacon and Interim City Manager Randy Talifarro took time at Tuesday night’s Council meeting to speak to the latest wave of resignations among top-level administrators in the city.
The city has been operating under an interim finance director since Jill Feldpausch left last summer and, in recent months, several of the city’s highest ranking employees have also left their positions. They include former City Manager George Lahanas whose contract was terminated by Council; City Clerk Jennifer Shuster; Deputy City Clerk Kathryn Gardner; Planning, Building & Development Director Tom Fehrenbach; Human Resources Director Shelli Neumann; Planning and Zoning Administrator Peter Menser and others.
Deputy Police Chief Chad Connelly also recently tendered his resignation, writing in a statement to his ELPD colleagues, “My reasons for leaving are varied, but I would be remiss not to emphasize that the turmoil at the governmental level, and what I perceive to be unethical leadership and personnel decisions, outside of the police department are major contributing factors.”
At Tuesday’s Council meeting, the question of who to hire for the search for the new city manager was managed by Interim Human Resources Director Ben Dawson. Dawson has also let the city know he’s leaving.
During their designated “communications” portion of the meeting, Bacon and Talifarro addressed the turnover.
Bacon said rumors of Council trying to “shoehorn” people into different roles are untrue and that the only decisions Council has made about leadership are to name Talifarro as interim city manager and begin the search for a new city manager.
The mayor suggested public concerns about the situation are overstated, and he expressed optimism the city will persist through the turnover.
“I don’t get a lot of anxiety when small things happen in the grand scheme of things,” Bacon said, “because East Lansing tends to stick up for itself.”
Reading from a prepared statement, Talifarro thanked the departing employees for their hard work and acknowledged the challenges their leaving present.
“Under the best of circumstances, this creates an emotionally challenging and arduous time for the team and coaches that remain,” he said, using a sports metaphor.
Talifarro said he hopes to provide a sense of stability for the remaining city staff and is confident city services will continue to be provided at a high level.
Talifarro added the city is close to filling the deputy clerk position, is interviewing candidates for the finance director and is addressing interim positions in the planning department. (ELi reported Monday the expectation is that former planning director Tim Dempsey will be hired on a contractual basis to serve again in that role as a new permanent planning director is sought.)
The departures are costing the city money, as ELi reported on Feb. 23.
The wave of resignations are actually increasing “personnel services costs” this year. That’s because, as Interim Finance Director Audrey Kincade wrote in the recent five-year financial forecast, “There are significant costs related to leave payouts resulting from these unplanned retirements or resignations.”
One extraordinary cost is the big pay-out to Lahanas because of a “golden parachute” in his contract. But even lower-level employees can cost the city significant sums when they depart.
“As you know, the City Manager’s situation was unique,” Kincade wrote to ELi, answering follow-up questions on the issue. “For all other regular full and part-time employees that resign or retire from the City, their union contract or personnel rules dictate the payout of unused leave time. Leave types (PTO, Vacation, Sick, Personal, Comp) vary by contract and which banks are paid out at resignation versus retirement also may vary by contract.”
It’s all adding up to the city having fewer workers but more costs this year.
ELi reported earlier today that City Council decided Tuesday night to hire the Michigan Municipal League to conduct the search for the new city manager.
Talifarro will be holding an open meet-and-greet today (Wednesday, March 8) at the East Lansing Public Library from 5:30-7:30 p.m. In advance of that, ELi’s Dustin DuFort Petty interviewed Talifarro. Read that interview here.