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Published in Economic Development

GR City Manager takes measured steps amid recent executive departures

BY Sunday, October 27, 2019 06:00pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Faced with multiple departures from leadership positions at the city of Grand Rapids, City Manager Mark Washington wants to avoid being “hasty” about hiring replacements.

Amid a spate of executives leaving the city for positions elsewhere, Washington has opted to fill the roles on a temporary basis and assess next steps. 

Mark Washington COURTESY PHOTO

“One of the things I am not in a hurry to do is to make any hasty decisions at this point,” Washington told MiBiz. “I have full confidence in the people that are in the positions right now, and you only get one opportunity to make important personnel decisions. I am not in a hurry to do anything at this point. I don’t see a need for not being deliberate.”

Washington said he has made some minor changes to the organizational structure of the city since he was hired about a year ago, but the vacancies allow him “another opportunity to assess the right alignment.”

Since the start of the year, several department heads or administrators have departed from their executive roles at the city. They include:

• Tom Almonte, the assistant to the city manager, who announced last month that he had taken a job in Pinellas County, Florida. Almonte was a finalist in for the Grand Rapids City Manager job in 2018. 

• Suzanne Schulz, who most recently served as the managing director of design, development and community engagement. She left after two decades with the city for a position at Progressive AE Inc., a Grand Rapids-based architecture and engineering firm. In her previous role, Schulz oversaw the city’s planning department. 

• Kara Wood, the former managing director of economic development services, who left for a position as associate vice president for community partnerships at Western Michigan University

• Courtney Magaluk, a senior project manager in the planning department, who took the role as city manager in Scottville, near Ludington. 

• Mike Lunn, the city’s former utilities director, who resigned in March after being placed on administrative leave.

• Comptroller Sara VanderWerff, who resigned in August to take a job out-of-state. 

The city filled the positions held by Wood and Schulz on an interim basis with people who already worked in the department. The Grand Rapids City Commission will appoint a new comptroller, an elected office that oversees the accounting office for the city, after reviewing submitted applications for the position. 

For some city leaders, including City Commissioner Jon O’Connor, the number of departures was unexpected. 

“On face, it looks like a lot of people have transitioned out of the city,” O’Connor said, noting that churn in city government is not abnormal. 

“Some of the folks that are leaving now have been fairly forward-facing folks in the administration who a lot of people know and recognize and respect, so I think that’s caused some consternation,” he said of why the departures might be raising eyebrows in the community.

From Washington’s seat, Grand Rapids’ strategic plan offers “a very clear roadmap” for the city’s recruitment and retainment strategies. 

“We’re very aligned with our strategy and operational implementation,” he said. 

Washtington, who’s been in the city manager role since October 2018, said he aims to find opportunities to change the city operations for the better. He’s currently evaluating where the city can improve its internal organization.

“There is a certain amount of excitement about what’s new, but it is also a certain opportunity for people to evaluate where they align within the organizational culture,” he said.

Applyingbest practices

In the strategic plan, which covers fiscal years 2020-2023, the city aims to reduce barriers to employment and improve the quality of its hires using data-driven methodology, as well as to develop employee training programs and use internships and apprenticeships to increase the pipeline of candidates. The city also aims to offer competitive benefits and develop a culture that improves employee engagement and satisfaction.

Those are best practices to have in place when it comes to bringing up a new generation of leaders, particularly as people leave their positions for other opportunities or because of retirements, said Dean Whittaker, founder and president of Holland-based Whittaker Associates Inc., a market research and consulting firm focusing on economic development. 

Most hiring processes are designed to weed people out, not to engage. This needs to change as organizations continue to struggle to find talent, he said.

“You need to market your organization as a desirable place to work,” Whittaker said. “We need to rethink our hiring processes and how onboarding is done, how we engage (employees) in the culture.”

Grand Rapids offers employee development programs, including tuition reimbursement for workers who want additional training or professional development. 

The city also has undergone succession planning workshops during which it brought in key members from departments and discussed how to build a master list of positions and a plan for how the organization can replace institutional knowledge after departures.

The municipal government in Grand Rapids currently employs about 1,600 people. 

Within the city organization, department heads often have deputies, so one person does not have the sole knowledge needed for a given position. This was the case in the economic development services department. Jono Klooster, who was most recently an economic development coordinator, now serves as the acting director for the department. 

In cases where leadership has departed, Washington appointed the next in line to temporarily fill those positions.

“It’s not like (Kara Wood) was a department of one; there is a great team of employees that she, to her credit, helped to prepare,” Washington said. “The same in the planning department. I absolutely have 100-percent confidence in the department and the staff that’s here.” 

Keeping faith

Like O’Connor, Washington also does not view the recent churn of city executives as abnormal, noting the city hired 62 employees, including six leadership positions, in the first quarter of this year. 

However, he acknowledges the talent issues private companies face also affect the public sector, making them competitors for the same pool of qualified people in many instances. Washington said the city has not fully implemented recommendations from a compensation study, but those measures could help in terms of the city’s competitiveness to hire and retain talent. The city, like many other businesses, has shifted its retirement benefits away from defined benefit pension programs.

“To some degree, where we have a competition with both public sector and private sector, we will never pay what the private sector pays, but we have to be able to maintain our benefits and make sure that they’re competitive,” Washington said.  “I can’t emphasize enough that we are a business and employer like any other organization. And the struggle for talent, both retaining and recruiting talent, is as important for us as it is for any other organization.”

Historically, workers might have “been willing to give up” a higher salary for the security of a local government job, O’Connor said. Now, both wages and retirement benefits the city offers are not as competitive as they are in the private sector, he said, which is a challenge the city must navigate when searching for talent.

Ultimately, it is up to Washington to facilitate making permanent hires, and O’Connor said he feels confident those new people, whenever they come, will lead the city in a positive direction.

“I feel like we have some challenges to work through, but (Washington) hasn’t even been here a year yet,” O’Connor said in an interview earlier this month. “I voted to say I wanted him to have the job, and I put my faith in the future of the city of Grand Rapids in his ability to be the executive. In another six months, if there’s a concern (about departures), we can address that. But for now, I have to have some trust and some faith.”

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