By Mya Gregory
East Lansing’s City Council voted 3-2 to name Robert Belleman to the position of city manager during a special meeting Sunday (Aug. 13). The two council members in opposition expressed support for Interim Director of Planning, Building & Development and former Deputy City Manager Tim Dempsey.
Voting in favor of Belleman – the former Controller for Saginaw County who was removed from his job in June amidst allegations of a “toxic work environment” – were Mayor Ron Bacon, Councilmember Dana Watson and Councilmember Noel Garcia. Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg and Councilmember George Brookover voted against Belleman.
With this decision, Belleman is now subject to the last phases of the hiring process, which require contract negotiations, background checks and acceptance of the position before he would be installed as city manager.
Prior to deliberations, Bacon acknowledged the written communications in the Council packet following the Monday (Aug.7) interviews, which showed an overwhelming amount of support for Dempsey from both community members and city staff.
Prior to coming back this year to help out with staff shortages, Dempsey worked for the City of East Lansing for 15 years (2014-2019), holding a variety of positions. Between his stints working for the city, Dempsey worked as a vice president at Public Sector Consultants, aiding municipalities around the state.
At public comment, two people spoke to the matter, both in favor of Dempsey.
Diane Wing, chair of the East Lansing Historic District Commission, came first.
“Just following up on the written communication I sent Friday, just to voice my support for Tim Dempsey as your selection for city manager,” Wing said. “I also read all of the written communications as of this morning. With the exception of two people who emailed using fill-in-the-blank forms and names I don’t recognize, literally every person who has written you regarding the city manager is voicing their support for Tim Dempsey, which is only as it should be, as he is so clearly qualified to be able to lead this city in the city managership role.”
Todd Sneathen, who worked for the City of East Lansing for 21 years, including as the director of public works, shared a similar opinion.
“One of the things that I think was always a constant with the city, and I hope we can get back to that spot, is the quality of the staff members of the city staff,” Sneathen said. “They’ve always brought the best. We’ve always been one of the places where people want to come and work…I just would like to say that I completely and 100% support Tim. He’s the right person for the job.”
Before getting to the deliberations, Bacon thanked various people involved and bemoaned the “scrutiny” that candidates have been put under.
“I want to take the time to thank all of the candidates for even participating in this process,” Bacon said. “This has become a far more difficult process for the people who want to do public service and even put their hats in the ring for this role right now. The different levels of scrutiny, things like that, and even the willingness to serve, in my own distinction, is just under fire from all sides.
“Anyone willing to put themselves out there and jump into the process, you have my utmost respect for doing so,” Bacon said. “And it’s also very difficult to expose yourself to the types of scrutiny and things that come with this work. So even the willingness to do this type of work from all levels, I have the utmost respect for.”
After a surprise announcement about another candidate dropping out, each member of Council spoke to their choice for the next city manager.
Gregg informed the public that candidate Collin Mays had dropped out of the race this weekend. ELi reported on Thursday (Aug. 10) that Mays was recently removed from his post as Director of Economic Inclusion by the City Manager of Cincinnati.
“We have had one candidate withdraw their interest, which is Mr. Mays,” Gregg said. “So we’re left with three possibilities for city manager: Mr. Belleman, Mr. [Adam] Kline and Mr. Dempsey.”
Garcia was the first to speak directly about his choice. He acknowledged the amount of communication he received from the staff and city. He said he has taken that communication into consideration when making his decision.
“I understand the gravity of this decision completely,” Garcia said. “I have seen every piece of communication that has come my way. I have read every one, I have responded to most. As I have said at this table before, I am always curious to what the employees are saying and I got to hear that this time. Overwhelming input from the employees and I learned a lot.
“I just want to, I guess, qualify that I understand the gravity of this,” he said. “I appreciate everyone’s input, I listen to everything, and this hasn’t been an easy decision. We’ve had some great candidates. My decision is one person and that’s Mr. Belleman to move forward.”
Brookover then went straight to expressing his support for Dempsey as city manager without elaboration.
“I’m prepared to make a motion to appoint Mr. Dempsey as the city manager,” he said.
Gregg seconded this motion.
Prior to voting on Brookover’s motion, the remaining members of Council spoke.
Watson spoke about the important role a city manager plays in a city and the strong effects they have on city staff.
“Our city managers that we hire or that are with us can help or harm my ability to make the best decisions, through me not being able to have transparency with understanding all of my options or not getting the same type of connection and conversation as others do,” Watson said. “They can also allow for unchecked behaviors. This can be from directors, it can be from departments that are going on, dysfunctions and biases can carry on in toxic ways under city managers, under their leadership.”
Watson spoke about the importance of a city manager who “understands and can carry out the City Council decisions and the City Council relationship.” During interviews, she said, she listened for candidates who had backgrounds in “important areas like finances, development and DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion].”
Watson did not express her support for one specific candidate at that point, but stated whomever was chosen, she hoped would start with a clean slate.
Gregg said she saw two viable remaining candidates and spoke about each individually.
“Mr. Belleman obviously took a fair amount of time during his interview to explain the situation that happened with his board up in Saginaw,” Gregg said. “And, as a member of the board that also recently separated from our city manager, I do kind of understand that there’s background to that. And what happens in public meetings is not necessarily indicative of the whole career that that person has had in that environment. I think that Mr. Belleman has the capacity to oversee our size of organization just based on his experience.”
But Gregg also expressed concern regarding “the amount of time that it would take for him to earn the trust of the staff and come up to speed on the incredibly complicated history of things.”
For this reason, among others, Gregg expressed her support for Dempsey.
“I would not be as favorable towards [Dempsey] as a candidate if he had not had that sabbatical of four years working outside of this community [for Public Sector Consultants],” Gregg said. “I do think that he has got, now, a breadth of experience, albeit four years of experience, working in other communities, seeing what’s working, what’s not working.
“And so, at this point I want security and stability for our staff. But I also want to move the business of the city forward in an as efficient way as possible,” Gregg said.
Bacon began his comments by expressing the priorities he wants to see put first in the City of East Lansing: “diversification and capitalization.” And he said Belleman, who before becoming Saginaw County’s controller was City Manager of Bay City from 2003-2013, would be the best candidate to steer East Lansing in this direction.
“The work done in Bay City, Michigan, was herculean,” Bacon said. “The ability to redesign a city that’s also in a similar landlock scenario, that needed to reallocate the riverfront. The work done as the first village manager in Birch Run, Michigan, to really try to coordinate their commercial apparatus in that area, when it was basically an outpost, and try to link an outpost and a city and turn it into one coherent operation.
“People who spoke to his abilities, really as a fiscal manager, are unrivaled, and some of those positions came from people who are not in complete agreement with him on that,” he said. “And his ability to move action and do those types of things moving forward. So that would be my selection when we move forward with the process.”
Following these remarks, Council voted on Brookover’s motion in favor of appointing Dempsey.
Brookover and Gregg voted yes, whereas Garcia, Watson and Bacon voted no.
Watson followed the failure of the motion to appoint Dempsey with a second motion, seeking to approve Belleman as city manager.
The motion to appoint Belleman then passed in a 3-2 vote, approved by Bacon, Garcia and Watson, and opposed by Brookover and Gregg.
The passing of the motion was met by unsettlement in the crowd.
“This is a farce,” Wing said, as she stood up from her seat. “This is an absolute farce. And I know that you know that I have sat on many boards and I realize that I am speaking out of turn. This is a farce.
“Two of the members, you are not returning. Mayor Bacon, you will not even be on Council next year. Councilmembr Garcia, your position is up for election. This entire process should have been deferred until the new council was seated,” Wing said. “You’re not listening to the people, you’ve clearly not listened to staff. I’m just, this city is, you’re just going to lose more people now.”
There was visible disagreement from the audience about the decision. Several people in the audience got up and left the room, mumbling to neighbors and shaking their heads in disapproval.
Prior to adjournment of the meeting, Mayor Bacon addressed the public.
“I feel we have an opportunity to have success through this process, to reunify, to come back together, and to create some new opportunities and maybe some fresh eyes on the process and things,” he said.
Note: Story has been updated at 4:02 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023, to reflect the correct spelling of Todd Sneathen's name and at 4:20 p.m. correcting that Robert Belleman was village manager for Birch Run, Michigan.