Traverse City News and Events

City Manager Reprimand, Density Changes, Park Projects On City Commission Agenda

By Beth Milligan | Oct. 4, 2021

Traverse City commissioners will consider issuing a formal letter of reprimand to City Manager Marty Colburn tonight (Monday) for failing to follow the city charter in his recent termination of the city treasurer and not seeking advice from the city attorney before making the decision. If adopted, the letter that will be placed in Colburn’s personnel file and will require him to take several corrective actions in the coming weeks, including creating a formal policy for handling employee terminations, issuing a written and verbal apology to the city attorney, and meeting again with commissioners in two to four months to review his progress and job performance.

Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe and Commissioner Brian McGillivary drafted the letter of reprimand after commissioners met with Colburn in closed session last week to discuss his handling of the recent termination of City Treasurer Kelli Martin. The city charter requires five city commissioners to approve the hiring or firing of the city treasurer, but Colburn terminated Martin for performance-related issues before obtaining commission approval. City commissioners later voted to uphold the firing, but the letter of reprimand chastises Colburn for failing “to follow the mandates of the city charter” when he fired Martin and again when he appointed an interim city treasurer without commission approval.

The letter also states Colburn failed to seek advice from City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht about following the city charter, and failed to seek counsel from either Trible-Laucht or “or other qualified individuals regarding adhering to city hiring and firing practices and policies designed to minimize any adverse outcomes or liabilities for the city.” Colburn’s actions “forced the city attorney to raise this issue with the city commission as is her clear obligation under the law, creating tension and discord among city staff and unnecessarily diverted the attention of city staff and this body from important matters of the city,” the letter states.

The letter says that commissioners – who recently approved a three percent salary increase for Colburn following a positive performance review for the last year – recognize Colburn’s “exemplary service and leadership to the city during a very difficult period in history.” The letter also notes that Colburn has “always led by example and taken responsibility and acted responsibly to resolve the situation when mistakes were made by the city.” Commissioners expect Colburn “will address this issue similarly,” according to the letter, telling the city manager that “the process and procedures you followed in this instance were flawed.”

Colburn will have to take several corrective actions in the coming weeks to mitigate fallout from the treasurer’s firing if the letter of reprimand is adopted. 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. The letter calls for Colburn to issue a verbal and written apology to Trible-Laucht and an apology to city staff, as well as to take steps to “resolve any discord or divisions among staff that has occurred as a result of this situation.” 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.

The letter closes by reiterating that city commissioners consider Colburn a “valued and trusted leader of our community” and appreciate his “cooperation, frankness, and willingness to accept responsibility and correct this matter forthwith.” It also notes that the city “does not tolerate any form of retaliation” and encourages 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.

Shamroe tells The Ticker the letter is a “reflection of the discussion that was had with the commission and Marty and was our choice of action based on what had happened.” Commissioners did not feel termination was an appropriate response given Colburn’s otherwise positive performance, with Shamroe saying that commissioners ultimately want staff – including the city manager – to have the opportunity to succeed and “be the best they can be.” With several city commission seats likely to turn over in the November election, Shamroe says it will be up to the new commission “to reconvene with Marty and check to ensure the policy that’s referenced in the letter gets written and that the other items are addressed.” Colburn declined to comment on the letter, telling The Ticker: “We typically don't comment on personnel issues through the media.”

Also at Monday’s city commission meeting…
> Commissioners will introduce and consider scheduling an October 18 vote on a proposal that would combine several residential zoning districts – R-9, R-15, and R-29, so named for the number of units per acre each district currently allows – into a single new district called R-3. The new district would not have any density limits, similar to how the city’s C-3 and C-4 districts work. Instead of regulating the number of units, development would be regulated through parameters like height limits, impervious surface limits, and setbacks. The proposal was supported by city planning commissioners and forwarded to city commissioners for final approval in an attempt to remove barriers to housing development and encourage more infill in city neighborhoods.

> Several park-related items are on tonight’s agenda, including a request to hire consulting firm Price-Lund for $12,000 for design services for improvements at Indian Woods Park. The city received a $50,000 state grant and allocated another $62,000 from the city’s Brown Bridge Trust Parks Improvement Fund for overall improvements at the park, including replacing play equipment with a new structure that would meet ADA and safety standards, connecting the upper and lower tiers of the park through a sidewalk or trail, and adding an improved picnic area and hill slides. Commissioners will also consider allowing alcoholic beverages to be served at the Hickory Hills lodge during approved events and rentals, a policy that would go into effect October 14. Also on the agenda is a recommended modest increase for rates at Hickory Hills Ski Area this winter, as well as a proposal to remove city commissioners from the appeal process if an individual is turned down for a street use permit or park and public land use permit. Individuals who are rejected for a permit would instead appeal either to the city manager or to an appropriate court, if necessary, in order to “depoliticize” the appeal process by removing city commissioners from the equation.

> Commissioners will consider approving updated contract terms with Trible-Laucht that will give the city attorney five instead of four weeks of paid vacation annually, as well as offer a flexible working arrangement that will allow Trible-Laucht to work partially remotely and set her own hours as long as she generally provides 30 hours a week of office hours. The move follows a recent commission performance review of Trible-Laucht, who is also slated to receive a cost-of-living increase to her compensation effective December 1.

> Tonight’s meeting will start with the presentation of the 2021 Sara Hardy Humanitarian Award to Goodwill Northern Michigan Community Engagement Officer Ryan Hannon and 5Loaves 2 Fish creators Bill and Michelle White. All three individuals are involved in outreach to those in need, with Hannon serving as a passionate advocate for individuals experiencing homelessness and the Whites working to assist those with food insecurity. Commissioners will also vote on passing resolutions tonight to proclaim November as Homelessness Awareness Month and to proclaim December 21 as Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. December 21 marks the first day of winter each year and is the longest night of the year.

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