Council slows down village manager's severance request

Marie Havenga • Dec 20, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SPRING LAKE — With a new village president who supports disincorporating the village being sworn into office in two weeks, Spring Lake Village Manager Chris Burns is requesting that Village Council approve a contract revision so that she is better protected in case disincorporation becomes a reality.

But council members tabled Burns' request Monday night, saying they needed more details and more time to think about it.

Burns is requesting that if her employment is not continued subsequent to a decision to disincorporate, that the village pay her a lump sum of two years of her then-current salary, with an additional four months pay accumulated for each calendar year she works after Jan. 1, 2017, not to exceed 48 months.

Burns' current annual salary is $89,639.

She told council Monday night that such an agreement would be an incentive for her to stay on and oversee any such disincorporation process.

Her current employment agreement, signed in 2012 when she accepted the village manager job, offers six months severance pay if she is terminated “without cause.” If she is terminated “with cause,” there is no severance pay.

Council members said they understood the need for Burns to protect herself.

“I think an agreement is absolutely necessary,” Councilman Joel TePastte said. “It's vital for the village, our citizens and for the village manager to have something in place with some guarantees in case, I think, the unlikely event of disincorporation happens, there's some motivation for Christine to stay and see us through this.”

TePastte made the motion to table the decision so council can have more time to discuss the terms of the agreement.

“We also have to protect the village here,” he said. “There is some language in here and some numbers that I think are excessive.”

Councilwoman Megan Doss told Burns that council is behind her 100 percent.

“If we disincorporate, someone needs to be here and you're the right person, obviously,” Doss said, adding that she needs more time to study the situation. “It's not really a severance, but we're paying her to stay here until the lights go down. This next road ahead isn't going to be exactly fun. We have to understand that she could leave. We have to understand that, as well.”

Village President Jim MacLachlan, who served at his last council meeting Monday, said he thinks the 5 percent annual pay raise that Burns is suggesting needs thorough discussion.

“We've always had a merit system,” he said. “To mandate something seems to be a bit of a change in our philosophy and policy, which I don't think is necessarily wise. ... I'm sure council and the new president will be very capable of looking into these matters and acting prudently and wisely.”

President-elect Joyce Hatton, who will be sworn in at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 3, spoke against Burns' contract revision request during Monday night’s public comment period, calling it “outragous.” Hatton said she checked with a labor law attorney in Grand Rapids regarding Burns' proposal.

“According to our charter, the village manager serves 'at the pleasure of council,'” Hatton said. “No severance package is legally possible.”

Village attorney Robert Sullivan said he disagrees.

“I'm not aware of any authority that makes that illegal,” he said. “Every manager has a severance package. A severance package for a municipal employee is a common thing. That's how you attract quality people.”

Sullivan said if the village dissolves, which also requires state approval and years to process, the village would have many obligations to settle — including water and sewer bonds, debts, and agreements with other municipalities and organizations.

“Somebody has to shepherd that,” Sullivan said.

Hatton called it a “moral issue.”

“How can the village attorney and the village manager so callously disregard the people they serve?” she asked. “How can the village manager recommend a package like this for anyone, much less herself?”

Hatton questioned how she could work with a manager who is against disincorporation. Hatton claims by winning the November election, she has a mandate to follow through.

“Both the lawyer, Bob Sullivan, and the manager, Chris Burns, must be fired and her severance contract canceled immediately,” Hatton said.

Hatton said she plans to hit the ground running with dissolving the village, which as a first step would require an amendment to the Village Charter that allows residents to petition for disincorporation. That was the legal snag she hit in her 2012 efforts. The charter had no avenue for disincorporation, according to a judge's ruling.

Several audience members praised Burns' and council's work during the past several years.

“Disincorporation is a long process,” Burns said. “It's a long, complicated process.”

Burns said she has not started job shopping, but if disincorporation becomes a reality, “it would be silly not to” if there is no incentive to stay. Burns compared it to “building my own gallows.”

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