Council revises village manager's employment contract

Marie Havenga • Feb 22, 2017 at 10:00 AM

SPRING LAKE — In light of all the disincorporation talk, Village Council on Monday voted 6-1 to revise the employment contract of the village manager.

The revised contract would pay Christine Burns one year in severance pay (salary plus benefits) should the village dissolve and become part of Spring Lake Township.

The village manager’s previous contract included a clause that would have paid her a severance worth six months of salary if she had been dismissed without cause.

Burns' current annual salary is $89,639.

“I'm happy with it,” she said. “Honestly, I don't think (disincorporation) will ever come to fruition. I believe the reasons that the disincorporation group has before them that will be shared with the entire electorate will deem the (disincorporation) unnecessary.”

Monday night, disincorporation work group chairman Tony Verplank — the nephew of Village President Joyce Verplank Hatton — told council that his committee does not recommend disincorporating the village. Rather, the group says it appears to be in the best interest of Spring Lake residents to retain the present village government structure.

The group, however, does recommend that council consider putting on the ballot a charter amendment that would at least offer a mechanism to disincorporate.

When Hatton launched a petition drive in 2012 to dissolve the village, an Ottawa County judge said the Village Charter did not include a means for disincorporation, so the effort failed.

Hatton believes disincorporating would save money for village taxpayers. Village residents currently pay taxes to both the village and the township.

Over the next several months, council will be setting up community engagement meetings to provide more information on the pros and cons of disincorporating to thoroughly vet the issue.

Burns said because the disincorporation question has been looming, the contract revision provides incentive for her to stay and work through the process.

“If disincorporation moves forward, they're essentially asking me to build my own gallows,” she said.

Should it happen, that the village becomes part of the township, there would be no need for a village manager.

“If they're asking me to stay until the lights go out and to follow the process through, obviously there's a lot of work involved in that process,” Burns said. “This is really an incentive for me to stay through the process. If I were to accept another job midway through, that would be problematic for the village. Because of the complexity of the issue, you really need someone to follow it through from start to finish.”

Hatton, who cast the lone dissenting vote Monday on Burns’ contract revision, said she did so because a Grand Rapids-based attorney she hired, John Huff, believes a severance package is illegal because the Village Charter does not specifically mention that severance packages are allowed.

Village attorney Robert Sullivan and his colleague, Ron Bultje, both disagreed with Huff. They said many municipalities include severance packages in employee contracts to attract better candidates.

Hatton asked Village Council to review Huff's opinion during a work session last week.

“They refused, saying they were satisfied with their legal adviser's opinion on the Burns contract, and they didn't need a second opinion,” Hatton said. “John Huff said since I paid for the opinion, I could present the opinion to the Spring Lake taxpaying public, which I did before the meeting on Monday night.”

Hatton said residents could challenge council's decision.

“Spring Lake Village voters can have the final say about the severance payment,” she said. “They can always ask the opinion of Judge Jon Van Allsburg, or another circuit judge in Ottawa County, to render his opinion on the legality of a severance payment.”

Hatton said she was pleased with the efforts of the disincorporation work group.

“I want to thank Tony Verplank and his entire committee for taking the time and personal expense to provide a path to disincorporation that will give the voting taxpayers of Spring Lake their opportunity to make the choice to remain a charter village or disincorporate into the Township of Spring Lake,” she said.

Even if voters were to approve amending the charter to allow a mechanism to disincorporate, it will then take another ballot initiative for Spring Lake village and township voters to have the opportunity to vote for or against disincorporation.

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