Traverse City News and Events

City Commission Approves Reprimand Of City Manager

By Beth Milligan | Oct. 4, 2021

Traverse City commissioners voted 4-1 Monday to issue a letter of reprimand to City Manager Marty Colburn - though the two commissioners who drafted the letter had to miss the meeting for COVID-related reasons and the remaining commissioners changed some of the language of the letter before approving it, including deleting a paragraph about retaliation despite the advice of the city attorney to include it.

Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe and Commissioner Brian McGillivary drafted the letter of reprimand based on conversations commissioners previously had in closed session with Colburn about his violating the city charter when he fired City Treasurer Kelli Martin. The charter states the city treasurer can only be fired or hired with the approval of at least five commissioners, which Colburn did not obtain before terminating Martin. Commissioners later voted to uphold Colburn's decision, but the letter of reprimand states he failed to follow the mandates of the city charter and caused discord among staff - particularly with the city attorney, whom he failed to consult before firing Martin - through his actions.

Shamroe and McGillivary unexpectedly had to miss Monday's meeting and the vote on the letter of reprimand, with Shamroe sharing in a public statement that she had tested positive for COVID-19 as a breakthrough case and was quarantining through Friday. McGillivary relayed a message that he had attended a meeting with an individual who also tested positive for COVID-19 and had been advised to skip Monday's meeting. Some commissioners expressed uneasiness about moving ahead with approving the letter without its authors there to discuss and vote on the item, but others said they wanted to see the issue put to bed for the sake of staff and not continue to drag the topic out. 

Mayor Jim Carruthers said he thought the letter as written was "heavy-handed," saying the former city treasurer had created a "toxic" environment that caused her department to hemorrhage staff and that Colburn had to take quick action to rectify the situation on behalf of the city. "He felt that he had to act," Carruthers said, adding that he thought the charter violation was just a "wording mistake" in how Colburn interpreted the charter. Carruthers also noted City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht was on leave when Colburn fired Martin and so was unavailable for consultation.

Carruthers and three other commissioners - Tim Werner, Roger Putman, and Ashlea Walter - voted to approve the letter with the caveat that a paragraph be eliminated that required Colburn to issue written and verbal apologies to Trible-Laucht and other staff. Werner said apologies should be given sincerely and that forcing the city manager to issue them wouldn't be as meaningful as Colburn voluntarily opting to apologize. Colburn did apologize at Monday's meeting, issuing his first public statement on the matter since Martin was fired. "I'd like to apologize, and I'm sorry that we're in this circumstance," he said. "In my role as city manager, I accept the responsibility. I've learned from this experience. I think we all have, and now would like to move forward having learned from this experience and continue on to provide the professional services that all of us do to this great community." Colburn told commissioners he appreciated their "counsel through this process as we've worked through this matter together."

Commissioners also cut one other paragraph from the draft letter before approving it - a change that prompted Commissioner Christie Minervini to vote against adopting the document. The letter initially included boilerplate city language noting that the city “does not tolerate any form of retaliation” and encouraging Colburn “to advise your team to refrain from any activity that may be or appears to be retaliation for participating in addressing this matter.” Failure to abide by any of the requirements in the letter of reprimand could result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination, the letter noted.

Werner said he thought the retaliation language was insulting to staff and that it didn't need to be included in the letter of reprimand. Trible-Laucht, however, said the language was included in all letters of reprimand that go into city employee personnel files to make it clear and "on the record" that retaliation isn't tolerated, in part of as a form of liability protection for the city in case retaliation does take place and a lawsuit is filed against the city. Minervini said that the city was in the position it was because of not taking the advice of Trible-Laucht initially and said she wouldn't approve the letter if the retaliation paragraph was removed. Minervini said the letter otherwise accurately reflected the commission's closed session dicussions with Colburn and the disciplinary action the board had wanted to take. Other commissioners disagreed that the retaliation language needed to be included, however, and approved the letter of reprimand with that particular section removed.

Under the terms of the approved letter, Colburn will have to take several corrective actions in the coming weeks to mitigate fallout from the treasurer’s firing. The city manager will need to meet with Trible-Laucht to ensure he gains “a full understanding of the charter and other employment laws.” He will need to develop a formal policy with Trible-Laucht and the city’s HR director for terminating any city employee, a process that will require the city manager to seek the advice of the city attorney and HR director before firing an employee, preferably in a joint meeting of all three department heads. Colburn will also need to work with the HR director to review the onboarding process for new hires to help new employees transition and “understand the unique demands and culture of working in and for the City of Traverse City.” Colburn will need to meet again with city commissioners in the next two to four months to review his job performance and progress on the above steps.

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