Process to find GR city manager starting fresh

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A day after Grand Rapids city commissioners failed to find a new city manager from three finalists for the job, an effort to regroup is being made at city hall.

“I think it was a discussion up to the last minute,” said First Ward Commissioner Jon O’Connor, who made the motion to start the search over again during Tuesday night’s city commission meeting.

The move to reject all three finalists, Pontiac Deputy Mayor Jane Bais-Disessa, Port Huron City Manager James Freed, and Arlington County, Virginia, Deputy Manager Carol Mitten, came after over three hours of interviews and a public forum Monday.

The process to find a new city manager began soon after former manager Greg Sundstrom announced his retirement last August and involved various forms of community input.

As the process neared an end, there were grumblings the public input didn’t match up to the candidate profiles.

“Issues with the police department over the last 12 months, the affordable housing and gentrification issues,” said Jeremy DeRoo, Executive Director of the community revitalization organization Linc Up. “There’s some deep, historic issues that are really on the surface in Grand Rapids, and a city manager ought to be able to help lead us through that.”

He isn’t alone in that thought process.

“The final slate, overall, wasn’t good,” said Jeremy Moore, a co-founder of Equity PAC.

The group organized to support equity-minded candidates and issues in the Grand Rapids area.

Moore says the community input portion of the process wasn’t adequate, noting that the names of the finalists were released just days before the public forum at Wealthy Theatre. He says the forum, which involved a moderator asking preselected questions, did not allow the public to direct their specific questions at the candidates.

“It seemed a little over-protective,” Moore said.

The business community has expectations for the next city manager as well.

“Fiscally sound,” said Grand Rapid Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rick Baker. “Are we providing the services that are important to the residents and the businesses for this community to grow?”

Baker suggests the next search lays out a different set of public expectations.

“We do want a transparent process, we do want resident and business owner engagement,” Baker said. “We want a way to filter that information to city commissioners. But at the end of the day, not every single person’s going to be able to cast a vote. We’re not electing someone. We’re hiring someone.”

O’Connor blames a number of other factors for not attracting more and possibly better candidates, including the $175,000 annual starting salary which, according to O’Connor, is high when comparing other Michigan cities, but low when it comes to the rest of the country.

“In the grand scheme of a $500 million budget, raising the pay a little bit more for the city manager to make sure we get the best possible candidate really doesn’t mean that much,” he said.

He said he believes that since the list of finalists are a matter of public record, many qualified applicants who already have a job are reluctant to throw their hat in the ring.

“We have to think about the strategy we use to give them some assurance that, if they get to the end, that when it became public, they know they have a real chance to get the job,” O’Connor said.

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss did not have the time to talk to 24 Hour News 8 Wednesday, but a spokesperson say the city is still assessing what to do next in the search process.

As for whether the city will have to fork over another $25,000 to the executive search firm GOV HR USA for the new manager search, the mayor’s office says they plan to follow up with the consultants to figure that out.