On the heels of losing the city's lead grant writer and economic development director, New Baltimore officials say the fate of the position is unclear.
Position vacant in city
Mayor Larry Smith informed City Council members via email that he let go Planning and Economic Development Director Judy Sproat Tuesday, Patch reported Wednesday. Smith provided few details about the move.
"She's no longer employed and that's as far as I can go," Smith said Thursday morning.
He said he doesn't know specifically what will happen to her position.
"We're just going to play it by ear and take it how it comes along," he said.
Director wore many hats
In the role she held for more than four years, Sproat helped usher business to the historic downtown, sought grants for city projects and was deeply involved with the Downtown Development Authority.
"I think Judy has done an excellent job in her role," Councilwoman Florence Hayman said. "I think Judy has done an excellent job in getting grants and I'm certainly sorry to see her not being employed by New Baltimore."
Hayman and Susan Burkhardt are city council liaisons for the Downtown Development Authority board, which Sproat worked closely with.
"All of my dealings with her were very professional," Burkhardt said.
Sproat served as co-chair of the annual Art of the Bay with Burkhardt, a big undertaking, the councilwoman said.
"That's going to be a huge loss," she said.
Questions over termination process
Smith and other city officials said the mayor had authority to end her work with the city because she was an at-will employee.
Last summer, the mayor changed her title and created an official job description for her. The decision came under fire at a June council meeting, which Sproat was not in attendance. Some city officials say that move meant she was no longer considered a department head--council is privy to termination decisions regarding department heads but not other employees.
In following months, retired St. Clair Shores district court Judge William Crouchman was asked by New Baltimore to come in as a neutral party as an American Arbitration Association member and examine the city's hiring process for Sproat.
"I was brought in and asked to do an investigation on what was happening," Crouchman said Thursday.
In what he believes was unintentional, the city did not follow protocol as directed in the charter on multiple instances during her hiring, he determined. And, since the city council never approved Sproat's hiring after the former mayor brought her in, the council would not likely have say over ending her employment, he said.
"That's a problem that's probably going to be argued in court," he said.
Sproat had complained of a hostile work environment, which was not determined to be the case in mediation. That outcome is not conclusive and could be contested in court, according to city officials.
Councilman Ken Butler, who is also an attorney, said it's feasible her termination could lead to litigation against New Baltimore.
"None of this is moving us forward, which is where our focus should be," Butler said.
He said he wants to know from the mayor what will happen next with the DDA. He also pointed out that it was Sproat who has been working on securing a grant, worth more than $100,000, for sidewalks on County Line road that Smith spoke about excitedly at the last council meeting. Butler, who pushed for the project, said the sidewalks will improve safety near Anchor Bay High School.
City charter dates back decades
Unlike many other Metro Detroit municipalities, the mayor has autonomy with personnel and is not required to disclose his reasoning behind firing staff with other community officials or during public meetings. Some city officials say that's because the city charter, dating back to the 1970s, is vastly outdated and should be brought up to speed with today's local government standards.
Although several city officials championed a charter revision that could have paved way for a city manager form of government, it was turned down by a majority of voters last summer. Smith said he opposed switching from the current strong-mayor form of government, saying it was a personal attack on him.
During discussions about the possible reform, Smith pointed out to council that he makes approximately $40,000 in his full-time role—the lowest of city department heads—and does not receive benefits. A city manager for a community of this size, he said, makes about $95,000 annually with a benefit package alone that costs the same as his yearly salary, he previously said.
Sprout has not been reachable for comment.
This article was updated at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.
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