Lansing City Council holds special meeting to discuss possibility of hiring a city manager, says no decision will be made without input from the public

by Julie Berg-Raymond

The Lansing City Council held a special meeting Monday, July 10, open to the public, to discuss the possibility of hiring a city manager in Lansing. The purpose of the meeting, as stated by Mayor Melissa Hammell, was to consider a city manager position in terms of what it means for a city to have a manager; the pros and cons of hiring a city manager; and whether it makes sense to hire a city manager in Lansing.

At one point during the meeting, council member Mike Manning expressed a concern, based on materials provided for council members’ consideration describing the possible roles and responsibilities of a city manager, that having a city manager would mean having “one person making all (the) decisions - it would put all of that into one person’s hands. That’s too much.” In response, council member Ian Zahren said the city council, itself, composes the final document detailing the roles and responsibilities for a city manager based on the council’s determination of the City’s particular needs. Additionally, Mayor Hammell noted “the city council would be in charge.”

Mayor Hammell’s assertion is supported by information provided at the website - which offers, according to its mission statement, “unbiased guidance and advice to anyone who wants to further their career” compiled by job advisors, employment professionals, employment agency owners, as well as specialist authors on employment processes and methods. “A city manager is a professional hired by the local government to oversee the day-to-day operations of a city or municipality,” the website notes. “Their role is to implement policies and directives established by the elected officials and ensure efficient administration of municipal affairs.  City managers are responsible for managing budgets, formulating strategies, and making recommendations to the mayor and city council.”

In brief: A city manager is hired or appointed by the city council. The city manager implements policies, but the city council establishes the policies. The city manager makes recommendations to the council; he or she does not tell the council what to do. “City managers are typically appointed by the city council through a rigorous selection process … (which) often includes evaluating candidates’ qualifications, conducting interviews, and thorough background checks,” the website continues.

Council members agreed that if the city council approves the hiring of a city manager, that manager would have to be paid a salary. According to council member Steve Murray, a starting salary for a city manager would be around $60,000 per year at a minimum.

“I think that’s the biggest ‘con,’” council member Lisa Welsh said. “The money.” Former Mayor Mike Brennan, in attendance at the special meeting, noted that “the sustainability of that position is going to be a challenge.”

Mayor Hammell and council members Welsh and Curtis Snitker all raised the possibility of covering the city manager’s salary through grants, given the fact that grant seeking/writing would most likely be one of the city manager’s most important responsibilities. “They should be able to write grants and pay for their salary through grants,” Welsh said.

Murray said the more vocal among his own constituents are against the idea of hiring a city manager. “I have talked with a dozen community members, and they’re all against it. Of course, I’m going to support the people who reached out to me - that’s who I represent.” Among the concerns he has heard from those who have reached out to him include the cost involved. “Roads are deteriorating,” Murray said. “Could that $60,000 be used to fix them?”

For Murray it’s mostly, though, a question of timing. “I’m not totally against having a city manager,” he said. “There are a lot of good things that could come out of it.” Emphasizing a need to consider what actual tax revenues are going to be in the near future, he added, “I just don’t think the timing is good.” Additionally, he wondered about where the city manager would work. “Where would he or she end up?” he asked.

Although, as later pointed out by council member Snitker, “it’s not mandated that we have to have city council meetings in this building,” Murray said that “in the short term, I do think we need a new city hall. I think we have to do something here, first. I just don’t think it’s the right time (to hire a city manager).”

Murray said that he knows the city clerk, Katie Becker, “has a lot of responsibilities, and I’d love to see some of that diverted to another person.” But, he added, “I do think we have a good council right now. I think we all could do more; I know I can.”

As Mayor Hammell and council member Zahren both noted during the discussion, though, councils change. Indeed, one of the positives Murray sees in the hiring of a city manager is how it could help sustain a long-term vision for the City - even in the face of potential political shifts and council turnover. Snitker also addressed the question of a long-term vision, saying, “We have a lot of untapped potential, and a lot of projects coming down the pike. I think it can be a little overwhelming - the Main Street ‘streetscape’/corridor, the bridge, seeking funding to update the Old Stone School. We have infrastructure all around town that is sorely in need of repair, and God knows what’s under the ground.”

Too often, Mayor Hammell said, “projects get started and the council and mayor change - and the projects never see fruition.” Hammell suggested the council needed to “start setting up five-year plans, 10-year plans, to accommodate changing council membership and to develop continuity.”

Even without council turnover, though, following through on some of the larger projects the City is facing can be a daunting prospect. “Lansing is an incredibly innovative town,” Zahren said. “But the execution of those ideas doesn’t always come to fruition. Are these projects something we can handle?”

Coordinating these projects would be one of the main responsibilities of a city manager, Snitker said. But “the number-one priority” for a city manager, he said, would be to “research funding opportunities at the federal, state, regional and local levels. There are a lot of grants available that we are not taking advantage of.”

Another benefit of having a city manager, Zahren said, is that “the council gets to have more time to do policy work” - the work it has been entrusted to do, in order to respond to the ever-changing needs of the citizens it serves.

Council members seemed to be in agreement on one thing in particular, regarding the possibility of hiring a city manager: Public input is necessary. “We want to hear from everyone in Lansing, whether they are for or against it,” Snitker said. “Because that will influence our decision.” The questions everyone needs to ask, he said, are “Are we at a point where we want to do this? Can we afford to do it? Can we afford not to do it?”

For Zahren, the most important task facing the council - on this question, among others - is earning public trust. “I would love to hear from more citizens,” he said. “It’s just really necessary; that’s how you develop trust in your city government.”

Former Mayor Brennan told the council he would “make sure you get everyone’s five-year plan rock solid and have all ancillary projects well documented  - and then intertwine the cost of a $60,000-a-year city manager … put your strategy plans into a form that the public can consume.”

Among the possibilities raised for gathering public input included a town hall meeting; a mailed survey; a non-binding referendum; and door-to-door canvassing. “We want to hear everyone’s perspective. We open the door by saying, ‘this is what we’re thinking,’” Zahren said. “But we might have some work to do as a council first, as far as approaching the community is concerned.”

Mayor Hammell agreed, suggesting the council slow things down a bit. “We need to work on figuring out what our needs are, specifically, as a city.” Once the council has done that work, though, the question will be brought to the community before any decision is made. The council tabled the issue for further discussion at a date to be determined.