BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor’s new interim city manager says he isn’t fazed by a heated debate over his hiring, because he just wants to focus on getting the job done.
Ellis Mitchell said he looks forward to returning to the city that he first served as manager from 1983 to 1987, when Benton Harbor grappled with major financial turmoil, including a period under federal receivership. Mitchell resigned the post in early 1987 on mostly favorable terms with the commission, saying he needed to spend more time with his family, then in Maryland.
“I feel that Benton Harbor needs me, and probably, I need it, to get it back to where it’s supposed to be,” Mitchell said Thursday. “Once you start doing a good job, things change. It doesn’t matter, and I intend to do a good job. I’m going to win them (opponents) over by doing a good job.”
Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad voiced a different view at Thursday’s special city commission meeting, where Mitchell’s hiring passed on a 6-2-1 vote.
Commissioners MaryAlice Adams, C.F. Jones, Ruthie McCoy Haralson, Juanita Henry, Edward Isom and Ron Singleton voted to hire Mitchell on an interim basis, with Muhammad and Mayor Pro Tem Duane Seats II dissenting. Commissioner Sharon Henderson abstaining.
Thursday’s decision followed a separate meeting, and vote, by the Personnel and Finance Committee to begin discussing the particulars of Mitchell’s contract at the Aug. 5 meeting.
Muhammad questioned how Thursday’s action will come across to state and federal entities who question where Benton Harbor is going, now that it’s regained local control.
“Whatever side of the pendulum you’re on, what is happening is not good, and it does not look good. My hope and prayer is that, out of this chaos, hopefully, order and normalcy will prevail, because people in these seats – it’s us today, and it’ll be somebody else tomorrow,” he said.
Muhammad also took a moment to address Mitchell directly, at the end of the meeting.
“You’re no stranger to the city of Benton Harbor – you have seen managers fired,” Muhammad said. “You’ve seen a lot. I think it’s unfortunate that you’re returning under the same circumstances.”
Muhammad and Seats argued against rushing to fill the manager’s job until the city determined exactly how it wanted to handle the relevant contractual and financial specifics.
But Adams voiced a different take, saying that calling a special meeting to hire an interim manager is part of a businesslike attitude that the city should take more consistently.
“I want to apologize for us having to have special meetings, but that’s a part of the process in place, to take care of things like this,” she said.
Adams also hoped to see Mitchell become an accessible voice for the city.
“I’m hoping that Ellis Mitchell will do us one grave favor, because I can remember a time, that wasn’t so long ago, that the city manager office had an open door policy – that he would extend that, at least take the blinder off the door,” Adams said. “When it went up, it was kind of like, ‘I have something to hide.’”
Isom and Singleton, the respective Personnel and Finance Committee chair and co-chairman, said they were simply trying to follow the city charter.
The charter requires the city to appoint a manager, which is in the city’s best interest, Singleton said.
“I signed up to serve and protect – without one, it exposes us to a lot of things,” Singleton said. “We have all kinds of issues that are going on. There’s been a lot of issues, of all kind of stuff, that don’t need to continue.”
“We got to trust the process. We all came together, so let’s work together, for the betterment of Benton Harbor,” Isom said.
Mitchell replaces Muhammad, who had been filling the interim city manager’s role for a couple of days after the commission fired former City Manager Darwin Watson last week.
But Watson returned Wednesday to the city payroll as chief of staff and public works director, an appointment that Muhammad said that he could make, as interim city manager.
Muhammad’s action drew criticism from other commissioners, notably Henry, who called it an end run around their decision to fire Watson.
Mitchell will earn an $85,000 salary, with specifics of his contract to be worked out later.
Since November 2017 Mitchell has served locally as the mobility manager at the Twin Cities Area Transportation Authority. Also on his resume, Mitchell has served as city manager for three other cities – Berkeley, Mo., East St. Louis, Ill., and East Point, Ga.
He’s also worked in Emeryville, Oakland, Richmond and San Jose, Calif., but his Benton Harbor tenure remains a defining experience, he said.
“I came here and the city was in worse condition than it is now – and I saved the city, along with my team,” Mitchell said, after the meeting. “I came here when the city was about to go into receivership, and we saved the city.”