BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor city commissioners fired City Manager Darwin Watson at a special meeting Monday after months of simmering tensions regarding Watson’s future.
“We just got rid of someone we had no confidence in,” Commissioner Juanita Henry said after the vote.
No other reason was given. Five commissioners voted to terminate Watson’s contract, with three voting against the move.
Voting with Henry to get rid of Watson were Commissioners MaryAlice Adams, Ron Singleton, Ruthie Haralson and C.F. Jones. Voting against were Mayor Marcus Muhammad and Commissioners Duane Seats and Edward Isom. Sharon Henderson was absent.
After firing Watson, commissioners agreed to have Muhammad assume the powers of the city manager without pay until someone can be found to take the reins, even if temporarily.
A special Personnel and Finance Committee meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at City Hall to start the process of finding a new city manager.
Monday’s meeting was called after Henry put a motion on the floor last week to “no longer accept the employment of the city manager.” Commissioners tabled that motion until the special meeting so they could figure out who was manage the city in Watson’s absence.
Even though no one spoke out against Watson Monday, several people spoke for him before the vote, including Seats, who said they should set up a corrective action plan for Watson instead of terminating him.
“It’s political suicide,” he said. “And for you all to have hard, callous hearts like you’re portraying tonight, you are damaging the future of the city. You are damaging the future of the children. You are damaging the future of the residents. So have at it. But I tell you publicly – I don’t support this and anybody who votes for this, I don’t support you.”
Muhammad said Watson has served the city faithfully for years.
“He has guided the city of Benton Harbor out of an abyss of financial disarray,” he said. “... He also had to ... pick up the pieces of the government to put it back together from a management standpoint as a result of emergency mismanagement.”
Watson was named city manager in 2014 by former Emergency Manager Tony Saunders II. Before that, he served as public works director.
Muhammad said Watson has produced four years of balanced budgets and three years of clean audits.
“We have a $4 million surplus,” he said. “We have a rainy day fund that floated the Community and Economic Development Department when the federal government was shut down. When no funds were coming from the federal government ... we were able to continue the projects.”
Before the vote, Watson said he loves Benton Harbor and that his family has served the city for decades.
“It has been 23 years, 7 months and 11 days since I stepped foot in this place,” he said. “Prior to that, my dad served here 1961 to 1991. He retired from the city of Benton Harbor. My brother subsequently came here.”
He said he’s lived in Benton Harbor his entire life.
“The hard part about it is this – is that there has been nothing said,” Watson said. “Just, you’re done, or we think you should be done. That’s tough. And there is no quantifiable, professional measure that ... has been put before me. But yet and still, you say that I don’t do what I’m supposed to do. This city is in the best financial shape it’s been in in a quarter century that I know. “
Watson left the room after the vote was taken. He was working on a contract that had been signed last November. Details of the contract were not immediately available.
After the vote, Muhammad said residents are witnessing a “coup d’e´tat” in which the government is being overthrown by its own elected officials.
“It’s been a self-inflicted wound,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that we terminated Mr. Watson for those who supported him. I ask residents to watch and study who supported it.”
The mayor said he will meet with employees tomorrow regarding where the city goes from here.
“I will do my best in the meantime and in the interim to keep the city at least moving forward,” he said.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege