By Alice Dreger
East Lansing’s City Council is expected to consider approval of a contract to appoint Robert Belleman the next city manager on Tuesday (Sept. 19).
In advance of that, investigation by ELi – including through use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – shows the road to this appointment has been rough.
From 14 anonymized applications for the city manager position, Council chose seven finalists. Belleman was the seventh, being chosen as the second alternate. He obtained an interview as three of Council’s seven choices dropped out before the interview process.
Of the four who made it to the interview round, two – including Belleman – had been removed from their posts between the time they applied and the interviews. Of those two who were removed from their posts, Council had only been informed of Belleman’s change of employment before the interviews.
According to East Lansing’s City Charter, the city manager serves at the pleasure of a majority of the Council. That means three or more members of the Council and Belleman will have to agree to a contract for him to become the next city manager.
No details of the contract negotiations or of the draft contract have been released, and the public has not been told who is participating in the negotiation process for the city.
Belleman was not the universal favorite of the Council.
In the decision to hire Belleman, Council members Mayor Ron Bacon, Noel Garcia and Dana Watson voted in favor, while Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg and George Brookover voted against.
Gregg and Brookover wanted to hire Tim Dempsey, East Lansing’s Interim Director of Planning and former Deputy City Manager, but were outvoted.
Results of a FOIA request by ELi and a review of communications to City Council indicate Dempsey was the overwhelming favorite in comments submitted by city staff and the public. Following the 3-2 vote to hire Belleman, numerous citizens wrote to Council to condemn the decision, with one writing in to support. (See the written staff and public feedback here and here.)
Amid the controversy, Gregg suggested on Aug. 15 that the Council members who voted in favor of Belleman (Bacon, Watson and Garcia) reconsider their votes at that night’s meeting. That didn’t happen. At that meeting, only one citizen spoke to the matter, namely Rebecca Kasen, who, like Garcia, is running for a seat on Council. Kasen supported hiring Belleman.
On Monday (Sept. 11), Carrie Sampson, who has been named by Interim City Manager Randy Talifarro the city’s communications director following the departure of long-time communications lead Mikell Frey, updated ELi about the matter.
“The process for hiring the new City Manager is ongoing,” Sampson said.
The Michigan Municipal League (MML), which was hired to manage the search, “has successfully completed Robert Belleman’s background check,” Sampson said. She didn’t say what it showed.
“There was a delay in getting the initial contract proposal to him, but contract negotiations are now underway,” Sampson continued. “The expectation as of now is that we will have a tentative agreement for City Council to vote on at its next regular meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 19. If the contract is approved at that meeting, Mr. Belleman indicated that he will be available to begin work the following week on Monday, Sept. 25.”
Newly released documents shed light on what Council did and didn’t know as it made its choices.
Communications from MML recruiter Joyce Parker to City Council (recently released to ELi under FOIA) show Parker did not tell Council before the Aug. 7 interviews that finalist Collin Mays had recently been removed from his post as the Director of Economic Inclusion by the City Manager of Cincinnati.
ELi reported this on Aug. 10 and, two days later, FOIA shows, Mays withdrew from consideration for the top East Lansing post, saying he was going to “pursue another position.”
FOIA now shows the reason Parker didn’t tell Council before the interviews that Mays had been removed from his post and subsequently quit was that she didn’t know it.
“MML was not aware of Mr. Mays leaving his position,” Parker wrote to Council on Aug. 12, “and, as a result, the information was not provided to the city. Our reference check and social media check did not pick up the information.”
Mays apparently didn’t tell MML about what happened with his Cincinnati job between the time he applied to be East Lansing city manager and the interview. He said nothing at his public interview on Aug. 7 about having been removed from his post and deciding to leave the employ of the City of Cincinnati.
Another finalist for the East Lansing job, Michael Silverman, also dropped out of the process before the interviews. Reporting from ELi showed he had been offered two other top posts, accepted them, but then did not take them. ELi’s investigation also showed Silverman had held six jobs in the last eight years. (Before the interviews, ELi had also reported Mays had moved through four jobs in the last five years.)
Belleman was fired as Controller of Saginaw County by the county’s Board of Commissioners on June 20 at a public meeting where some spoke in his favor and more against his style and leadership history.
Communications from Parker to City Council, recently released to ELi under FOIA, show Parker advised Council on July 28 about their finalists’ references in advance of the Aug. 7 interviews. At that time, she described one of Belleman’s two chosen references as being “impressed with his qualifications and knowledge,” while she said another indicated he “would benefit from sensitivity training” as “employees protested his management style.”
Parker also conveyed a four-page email message from Belleman about his ouster. In it, Belleman defended his record, characterizing his firing as politically motivated and objecting to “the sensational, one-sided press coverage from the June 20, 2023 Board of Commissioners meeting.” (Read what ELi learned from obtaining a tape of the meeting from another news organization.)
MML passed along to Council a June 14 letter from the Chief Judge of the Saginaw County Trial Courts who said he had “heard rumors that there is consideration being given to terminating” Belleman. (The letter is dated six days before Belleman’s termination happened.) The judge, Darnell Jackson, said he was “unfamiliar with the reasons” but “unequivocally state[d] his support for Mr. Belleman from a personal standpoint.”
As reported earlier by ELi, among those calling for termination of Belleman’s contract at the June 20 meeting were the Saginaw County clerk, the county prosecutor, the county’s former animal control manager, the county’s IT director, former employees and vendors, and a union rep.
County Prosecutor John McColgan told the board before the termination, “I’ve been in this building almost four years and I’ve never seen employee morale lower than it is now.”
Saginaw County Clerk Venessa Guerra said work under Belleman was “best described as a toxic work environment, in fact the most toxic work environment I have ever worked in.”
When he was interviewed for the East Lansing city manager job, Belleman told Council, “When you look back at the news articles that have come out, they say ‘toxic work environment.” But, he said, “I take issue with that because there was only one employee that spoke about a situation that I was working with that employee on,” namely the head of IT.
Saginaw commissioners who voted in favor of keeping Belleman did not respond to ELi’s requests for comment.
Saginaw County Commissioner Rich Spitzer explained to ELi on Aug. 15 why he voted to terminate Belleman’s contract.
“I have never met a more intelligent or knowledgeable man as Mr. Belleman,” Spitzer said. “He is a virtual walking encyclopedia of statutes and regulations.”
“Having said that,” Spitzer said, “his management style is such that he has had difficulty working with departments and elected officials in the past….Whether or not he has taken his experience from Saginaw County and learned from it and evolved, I cannot say.”
Saginaw County Commissioner Jack Tany, who also voted to terminate Belleman’s contract, told ELi on Aug. 15, “As far as running the day-to-day activities, the budget and all the different departments, I’d give him a 10 out of 10.”
“What we had an issue with,” Tany continued, “he treated a couple of employees not well. Dressed them down, dressed them down in front of co-workers….In this day and age, you cannot berate someone in front of co-workers. We received emails from the entire IT department. They were going to walk. That would have paralyzed Saginaw County.”
The City of East Lansing has been struggling with the loss of numerous senior management staff since January of this year.
Surveys of self-identified likely East Lansing voters by ELi show the hiring of the city manager and the wave of resignations are both on their minds as they look to the Nov. 7 election. (The League of Women Voters is holding a candidate forum convened in partnership with ELi tonight, Sept. 14, starting at 6:30 p.m. at the Hannah Community Center.)
Council had been set to have a “discussion only” non-voting meeting Tuesday (Sept. 12). According to Sampson, this week’s meeting “was canceled due to a lack of business.”
The Council meeting on Sept. 19 is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Hannah Community Center. An agenda has not yet been released. When it is, it will appear here.
UPDATE (Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, 12:21 p.m.): The city’s Communications Director Carrie Sampson got back to ELi with responses to follow-up questions. According to Sampson, as to the Michigan Municipal League’s background search on Belleman, “We know from MML that there were no adverse comments or findings, and that Mr. Belleman satisfactorily passed a credit check, a credential check, criminal and civil checks, etc. We also accept that it is the practice of MML to withhold the actual background report given the sensitivity of the information elicited.”
Regarding the contract negotiations, “City Council set the parameters of the position in terms of salary, benefits, etc. at the outset of the search process through the job posting. Candidates reserve the right to make counter offers after receiving the City’s initial proposal, which fell within those parameters. The contract that is currently proposed was structured very much like the one that existed for the former City Manager. However, it ultimately may look different as the candidate may have his own counter proposals and City Council may or may not agree with any counter proposal. Ultimately, Council will approve the terms and conditions of any final contractual agreement with a new City Manager.”
The last contract held by “the former City Manager,” George Lahanas, was controversial for including a generous severance package.