Analysis: Pulling Back the Curtains on Saline City Council Dispute Over an HR Manager

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 05/20/2020 - 14:40

If you’re struggling to understand what’s happening as Saline City Council squabbles over the addition of a deputy police chief and human resources officer, you’re not alone.

It wasn’t long ago Mayor Brian Marl, sounding the alarm over what COVID-19 will mean for the budget, tersely instructed Councillor Janet Dillon to comb through the budget and find the money to pay for the human resources director she wants for the city offices. Dillon, however, had a different kind of numbers on her side. Councillors Christen Mitchell, Kevin Camero-Sulak and Jim Dell’Orco sided with her - giving the position majority support. Council compromised and came to an agreement. They would add $65,000 in the budget for a human resources consultant. It seemed like a fair compromise in what was being cast as a tight-budget.

Even before this compromise was reached, council and City Manager Todd Campbell had said no to several budget requests. Police Chief Jerrod Hart’s ask for deputy police chief didn’t even make it off Campbell’s desk for council’s consideration. Council learned the school district was no longer going to fund the school resources police officer position and decided the city wouldn’t either. Council also cut funding for a matching federal grant that would have funded an additional police position. Council had already agreed it wouldn’t fund one of the DPW positions Director Jeff Fordice had requested for a department that hasn’t been at full strength in over a decade.

Given all expenses being left out of the budget and the signaling over COVID-19's impact on city finances, that HR consultant seemed like a good compromise.

Suddenly, a week ago Monday, everything changed.

Council came out of an executive session a little more than a week ago and all seven members agreed a deputy police chief was a necessity for the organization.

So why did everything change? Don’t expect an open and honest answer from city officials. Their lips are sealed. The Open Meetings Act says governments may meet behind closed doors to discuss personnel issues. So mum’s the word.

Details are scarce. Here is what can be reported.

Longtime Saline Police Department employees Sgt. Jay Basso and Officer Dave Ringe are no longer employed by the department. Detective Mike King has also been removed from the department’s roster of sworn officers. It’s not clear why the officers departed and the reasons may never be made public. It’s very possible those reasons aren’t in any way newsworthy. This revelation is not meant to cast any doubt on their performance as police officers.

But the turmoil in the department seemingly convinced council that Chief Hart needed administrative assistance. Hart is down to one sergeant.

It’s not exactly clear why a deputy chief is required. Many moons ago, former Chief Larry Hrinik called for a four-sergeant system to help him manage the department and cut back on overtime. It was also thought the system and opportunities for advancement would help raise department morale. The department reached four sergeants in 2013 when three officers earned their stripes. But over time, the ranks were depleted and never refilled. Until Basso’s recent departure, the department was operating with just two sergeants.

So when did the city and department abandon the four-sergeant plan? If we had four sergeants, would Hart need a deputy chief? What’s the new plan for sergeant staffing if we have a deputy chief? Is it a Deputy Chief plus two sergeants? One sergeant? Three sergeants? A deputy chief with one or two sergeants makes more budgetary sense than three sergeants, right?

Marl and Dean Girbach were on council when the city eliminated the deputy chief position when Jack Ceo retired in 2011. Ceo, now a member of city council, knew the 2011 council was considering the elimination of the position.

"I have heard that it is good to leave of your own volition before other people wish you gone — while some people still remember more about your accomplishments than your failings. I feel I am on that brink, and don't want to cross over," Ceo wrote in his resignation letter.

The city was in dire financial straits at the time due to the crash of the housing market. It’s an odd coincidence the city has decided to reboot the position just as we may be on the precipice of another deep recession.

The swift turn-around on the need for a deputy chief happened without any public deliberation. Council came out of closed session and suddenly, they were unanimous in their support for the position.

When council agreed to find funds for a deputy chief’s position, the foursome who’d settled for a human resources consultant was no longer satisfied with their compromise. They went back to asking for a full-time officer. And having a majority, council acquiesced.

Does Saline need an HR director?

Well, there are more than 60 full-time employees. And the city has struggled in the HR department recently. One of two newly hired police officers are no longer with the department. The city’s efforts to replace DPW Director/City Engineer Fordice have flopped - and he’s leaving soon. Perhaps an HR manager would have never allowed the city to put together a DPW Director/Engineer position that would be so hard to fill. An HR director could presumably have helped the department safely handle the situations involving the recently departed police officers and city office staff. There’s no doubt a good HR director would help with recruitment, help with labor relations. And maybe it would benefit the entire city organization.

“HR has evolved. It’s the keeper of the culture in an organization,” said  Nowak Consulting Group’s Michelle Ferguson as she presented an organizational study to council in 2019.

(The study did not review the police department organization.)

But is now the time?

The city has lots of needs, so it’s a matter of priorities. That’s what budgeting is. It’s not easy to prioritize when seven people balance the needs of a city.

Having watched this play out, it’s also impossible to ignore other fires burning all around the debate. Council has been split for a long time. When councillors Linda TerHaar and Heidi McClelland decided not to seek office again in 2019, they spoke of a “toxic” atmosphere at the council table. So these fights are nothing new.

How much of the fight for an HR director is about the fight over the future of City Manager Todd Campbell? How much of the split on council harkens back to a particularly nasty incident at a council retreat that left Dillon and Mitchell feeling like they were ambushed and attacked by the city manager and some of their fellow councillors? 

Those fires are still burning. Even as he voted yes on the budget, Councillor Girbach, now firmly in Mayor Marl’s camp, provided a sharp rebuke to the pro-HR director position, saying it was going to cost the city two or three frontline workers in the DPW and police department. That’s a pretty stiff charge - considering council didn’t have those frontline workers in the budget anyway. And you could make the same claim about the addition of the deputy chief position, right? 

Girbach has thrown the word “nitpicking” to criticize opponents’ questions. And anyone watching a 25-minute council discussion on the purchase of a phone system for the city would probably agree. But talk to the nitpickers, and they’ll tell you their confidence and trust in city decision-making is so low, they feel obligated to micromanage - though they wouldn't use that last word.

If all this seems a little hot for your happy town council, the temperature may rise more in June, when council takes up City Manager Campbell’s contract.
 

Tran Longmoore's picture
Tran Longmoore
Tran Longmoore is a veteran community journalist. He is founder and owner of TheSalinePost.com. He is co-publisher of The Saline Post weekly newspaper. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 734-272-6294.

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