Traverse City Treasurer Fired, Cause Undisclosed; City Commission Vote Required To Uphold Termination
By Beth Milligan | Sept. 10, 2021
Traverse City Treasurer Kelli Martin has been terminated from her position after one year on the job, with City Manager Marty Colburn notifying commissioners by email Wednesday of his decision to remove Martin from her position. Colburn confirmed the firing to The Ticker, but declined to discuss the cause of Martin’s departure. The move raises questions under the city charter about the timing and process of the termination, as the city treasurer is one of two employees – along with the city clerk – who can only be fired with the approval of five commissioners.
In a short email to commissioners, Colburn wrote that he was “communicating to you my action of terminating a senior member of the management staff, Kelli Martin. This position is an at-will position, however, is one of two positions within the city charter that require city commission confirmation. I will prepare this item to be on the October 4, 2021 city commission agenda. I have designated James Henderson as the interim city treasurer/finance director.” Henderson, a CPA, previously served as the city’s deputy treasurer and deputy finance director.
While Colburn confirmed to The Ticker that Martin “is no longer the city treasurer and no longer employed by the City of Traverse City,” he declined to discuss the reasons behind her firing or any additional details surrounding her departure. “Typically, our policy is not to speak on personnel issues,” he says. “We wish her well.” Though some city commissioners said they’d heard Martin was placed on administrative leave prior to her firing, Colburn said that wasn’t the case. “She was never on administrative leave,” he said. As of Thursday, Martin’s name had been removed from the city website and her city email disabled.
Though Martin could not be reached for comment, her husband – Christopher Martin, a Traverse City planning commissioner – issued a statement on her behalf to The Ticker, noting she was dealing with a health issue and had undergone a medical procedure Thursday that left her unable to speak to media. "We uprooted our family and left our friends to move to Traverse City, and did it in the belief we had found the silver lining in COVID," he said. "My wife's employment was considered at-will, but whatever the city's reason, it was clearly not a good cultural fit. She probably would have left the city anyway, but this moved up the timeframe." Christopher Martin said his wife is already in discussions with other potential employers and that he had "no doubt she'll end up somewhere better in her career, as she's always done." He added he didn't have any immediate plans to step down from the city planning commission. "I will continue to be the conservative voice on the planning commission and work to be a positive impact in protectecting homeowner and citizen rights," he said.
While the city charter gives broad leeway to the city manager over the hiring and firing of staff, it sets parameters on the position of city treasurer and city clerk. At least five city commissioners must approve appointing or removing employees from those two roles, in part because the city clerk and city treasurer must sign off on any disbursement of funds from city accounts – thus serving as a check on the city manager’s spending authority.
According to city charter language, the city manager “may remove the city clerk and city treasurer only with the consent of five members of the city commission.” Colburn says he believes he has the upfront authority to terminate Martin, provided city commissioners uphold the decision. Colburn says he isn’t sure what would happen in the event commissioners didn’t support the termination. “We’ve never had that circumstance before,” he says. Though the commission has a meeting scheduled for September 20, Colburn says the termination isn’t on the agenda until October 4 because of timing constraints involved with preparing meeting packets.
Several commissioners who spoke with The Ticker said that while they didn’t have many details surrounding Martin’s departure, they did not believe it involved criminal activity or misuse of city funds. “I have not heard that there was any malfeasance involved,” says Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe. “I’ve received no indication there’s any hanky-panky going on with the city’s funds,” agrees Commissioner Brian McGillivary, adding that Martin helped “modernize the treasurer’s office and its accounting system” since joining the department in August 2020. Like the private sector, the public sector sometimes has positions that don’t pan out, according to Shamroe. “In a business you don’t have to deal with personnel issues publicly,” she says. “It’s certainly not ideal for anyone to have to do these things in the public eye, especially if it’s just a matter of not working out, which it seems like it is.”
Given the importance of the city treasurer’s position, Shamroe says she understands why Colburn may have acted on the termination first and sought commission confirmation second. Shamroe says if commissioners for some reason didn’t support Colburn’s actions, they could reinstate Martin on October 4, but she believes the decision was a thoughtful one. “At the end of the day, it’s our decision, but I know from working with Marty that this was not entered into lightly,” she says. “He tends to be overly accommodating working with staff, so I find it hard to believe we wouldn’t end up concurring with his decision.”
Commissioner Tim Werner also said he was comfortable with the process to date, expressing a willingness to have a commission discussion on October 4 and then vote at that time to confirm Colburn’s decision. He notes that going through a termination approval is a new process for most commissioners and Colburn. City Clerk Benjamin Marentette has held his position for a decade; prior to Martin, former City Treasurer Bill Twietmeyer was in that role for 30 years before retiring. McGillivary says he's not sure whether the process under the city charter is being followed correctly, but notes commissioners typically trust the city manager’s judgment on staffing and administrative decisions. City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht did not return a request for comment on the legal process for removing the city treasurer under the charter; Marentette referred procedural questions to Colburn.
If Martin requests a closed session on October 4, McGillivary says commissioners could discuss the matter in private, with a public vote then to follow on confirming the termination. Otherwise the discussion will be in public and likely brief, McGillivary says. “I’ll support the city manager’s position,” he says. “People aren’t always a fit for the actual job, even if they’re a fit on paper. It's disappointing for everyone it didn't work out. I wish her the best.”Comment