ISHPEMING — The city of Ishpeming will be seeking a new attorney at the same time as it welcomes its long-awaited city manager.
In a 4-1 vote at a special meeting on Wednesday, the Ishpeming City Council terminated its contract with city attorney Bonnie Hoff, effective immediately.
After a lengthy debate, and several prior failed motions during the meeting, Councilor Pat Scanlon moved that Hoff be terminated for insubordination.
Mayor Mike Tonkin, who seconded the motion, told the council that he had requested information on city employee “exit interviews” conducted by Hoff in last year on three separate occasions. He said, rather than provide the information, Hoff indicated via email that she was willing to meet with him, but did not provide the information as requested.
“That’s three times and I have it on paper,” Tonkin said. “We are going round in circles. She works for the city council, people, I am the mayor … Now here is a project that is very straight forward, and I get the same answer, which is nowhere.”
Councilor Jason Chapman, who was the sole “no” vote on the motion to terminate Hoff, asked that she be allowed to speak on the matter.
“My concerns here is that we have an opportunity to discuss the issue at hand,” Chapman said, “including giving our attorney the chance to discuss it because it is her job. I want things to be open and honest and I want people to have the opportunity to discuss them.”
Hoff said the information from the exit interviews had not been entered into any employee files but was “on hold,” and that the interviews were requested by a city councilor who had asked to remain anonymous. She said former city manager Mark Slown and the department head impacted by the request were aware the interviews were being conducted.
“There were five affected employees in the department in question, I only spoke with two of them, again voluntary on their part,” Hoff said. “Both of those interviews were premised on confidentiality. Also, both of the interviews were conducted with former employees who would otherwise report to a department head who would otherwise report to a city manager under the charter. That is the chain of command under the charter. (The interviews) are on hold. I brought the information to the interim city manager who indicated he would prefer to allow the permanent city manager to address the issue. It could not be addressed due to the odd situation currently presented in the city.
“There are no exit interviews in any employee file, they are all on hold pending the arrival of the permanent city manager to whom I would convey that information under the current city charter. So, I take the position I am following the charter. They were premised on confidentiality and I take that very seriously and I will not breach confidentiality. Furthermore, I cannot violate the ethics of my profession.”
Other issues raised regarding the attorney position have included the rate of pay and benefit costs, which combined are over $80,000 per year, and the lack of direction from other city officials.
“The most kind term I can use is the tail is wagging the dog,” Scanlon said. “The attorney, (the tail) is wagging the dog, the city. And it can’t be that way. I could go through here with a highlighter and I could pull 50 percent of these jobs off of here that are not critical and nobody’s ever done that. The other thing that doesn’t exist on any of these lists is who assigned that work. This goes back to the tail wagging the dog.”
Councilor Lindsay Bean said she did not call the meeting with the intent to terminate Hoff but rather to: “find a way to hit the reset button.”
“I keep thinking, in a divorce when you file the paperwork for separation … irreconcilable differences. From my personal perspective, I haven’t said a whole lot I don’t have an issue in any of these areas. I have listened to a lot of people discuss this city attorney issue and I feel like that the definition of what’s going on here is we have irreconcilable differences. Whether I agree with you or not or whether I agree with Bonnie or Pat or Stu or Jason, it doesn’t matter if I agree or disagree at this point. I feel like (what) matters (is), can we move forward. Can you all agree at some point and can we move forward, and if we can’t then my vote on your motion is that I don’t see a way out of this. I don’t see a solution out of this. I don’t see a way out of this situation that’s going to make everyone happy.”
Councilors indicated that in the short term they will acquire city attorney services as a contracted position under the city charter. Hoff is entitled to a 90-day severance under her employment contract with the city.
Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.