The East Lansing City Council is trying to pick up the pieces of a fractured city staff after numerous key employees have left their posts over the last few months.
Going into the Tuesday, March 14, Council meeting, the city and public had recently learned Acting Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson was joining a rapidly growing list of departing staff members. Among others, Tom Fehrenbach and Peter Menser of the Planning Department, City Clerk Jennifer Shuster and Deputy Clerk Kathryn Garner, Ben Dawson and Shelli Neumann of the Human Resources department and Deputy Police Chief Chad Connelly have all recently resigned to take jobs elsewhere. Prime Time Seniors Program Director Kelly Arndt has also recently retired.
Today, ELi learned that Assistant Director of Parks, Recreation & Arts Wendy Wilmers Longpre has also resigned. Her last day will be March 23. She has taken a job with the Spicer Group consulting firm.
The dramatic loss of experience and talent within the city staff drew concern from some residents in public comment at the meeting.
“I don’t know what’s going on in this city, I don’t claim to know what’s happening. But there’s something endemic that’s happening in this city that so many of us love, and I’m getting pissed about it,” Diane Wing of the Chesterfield Hills neighborhood told Council. Wing is also chair of the city’s Historic District Commission. “This is a crisis that the city has. All of your focus should be on figuring out what is the problem that is causing all of these professionals [to leave].”
To help clarify which positions the city needs to fill, Councilmember George Brookover proposed that Interim City Manager Randy Talifarro and Interim City Clerk Marie Wicks provide a special report by this Saturday, March 18. Brookover’s notion was that this report would be publicly released over the weekend and discussed at Council next Tuesday, March 21.
He wants that report to include: an organizational chart showing non-union vacancies; a copy of each job listing; copies of personnel requisition forms for open positions; job descriptions for open jobs; applicable hiring policies and charter provisions; a summary of every action or contact taken to fill vacancies; and job interviews currently scheduled. He also asked for a copy of any current city personnel manual or manuals.
Brookover’s request received pushback from Talifarro as well as Mayor Ron Bacon and Human Resources Administrator Emily Kenney, mainly because of the deadline. (Kenney is apparently the only staff member left in Human Resources, based on comments from Council and staff last night.)
In making his request, Brookover said he assumed the documents would be easy to assemble. Talifarro explained that is not the case for some of the materials sought by Brookover.
“They haven’t existed for the past 11 years and I’m being asked to produce them in a week,” Talifarro said.
Assistant to the City Manager Nicole Mosteller explained to Brookover that there are no existing job descriptions for some of the vacancies.
“Some of these positions have been filled for five to 10 years and we haven’t been reviewing these job descriptions,” Mosteller said. “Those aren’t readily available, those are in the works.”
Kenney also said some job descriptions used in the past can’t be found.
In a further pushback to Brookover’s request, Kenney said it may be a bad idea to include the names of job applicants in the report, as Brookover suggested, because some candidates might not want their current employer to know they are looking for work elsewhere.
Bacon said he liked the idea of Brookover’s plan, which would help clarify roles, but he thinks the deadline is too soon with city staff already spread so thin.
“This is a nice priority,” Bacon said. “I think there are bigger priorities. This is going to be something we work towards. I don’t think it’s a next week priority. Frankly, I think the priority is getting people support.”
Council did not take any motions on the proposal.
But Wicks stepped forward offering to create a spreadsheet that would satisfy some of Brookover’s requests. She said she can create a file showing positions that need to be filled, what jobs have been posted and which positions have descriptions available.
“I think I could probably accomplish that pretty easily,” she said.
In addition to Brookover’s concerns, Councilmember Dana Watson said the city could develop a better way to communicate with city staff and residents about staff departures.
“I am finding out [about departures] through ELi,” she said.
Watson pointed to East Lansing Public Schools using email to alert students, parents and staff of High School Principal Shannon Mayfield’s resignation as a model the city could follow.
Talifarro said he tries to communicate new developments quickly, but sometimes media reports come out before he even has a chance to confer with the departing employee.
“There have been a number of times where the media has had the information almost as quickly as I have,” he said. He added that he tries to respect the privacy of his employees.
Talifarro also said hiring practices have not changed since he took over as city manager and he does not want to give fuel to rumors that say otherwise.
“I don’t want to give breath or life to the rumor that there is something unethical occurring,” he said. “Nothing has changed.”
A full list of open jobs is available on the city’s website and can be viewed here, though some of the openings created by recent departures are not yet listed.