Proposed retreat rankles some on commission

BENTON HARBOR — A proposed December retreat at a resort near Gull Lake has some Benton Harbor city commissioners calling for the brakes to be put on unbudgeted city spending.

Interim City Manager Ellis Mitchell sent an email Monday to commissioners and department heads, asking them to list their top five priorities for the city so they can be discussed during the Dec. 11-13 retreat.

But Mayor Marcus Muhammad said during the city’s Personnel and Finance Committee meeting Wednesday that he needs to know how much the trip is going to cost and where in the city’s budget the money is coming from.

Commissioner Duane Seats agreed.

“How many thousand dollars will the retreat cost?” he said. “Anybody know? ... How much is it going to cost all of us to stay in a hotel room for two nights, feed all of us, take a bus to where we’re going?”

Mitchell said he would get the information to the commissioners.

Seats said his asking for the information is not personal.

“When (former City Manager Darwin) Watson was here, I asked the same thing,” he said. “ ... We have to get ahold on the spending.”

When contacted after the meeting, Commissioner Ron Singleton said the retreat being at Gull Lake is tentative and that he would like it to be in a different location.

“I think we can do what we need to do right here in the commission chambers,” he said.

Singleton said he has a lot of questions about the city’s budget, yet no one is available to answer them. The city’s finances are being handled by Rhonda Hildebrand from Plante Moran until commissioners can hire a new financial director.

Singleton said city commissioners can ask her to come to a meeting, but can’t require her to come because she’s a contracted employee.

Singleton said transparency with the city’s budget is a problem right now.

This isn’t the first time some commissioners have questioned spending by Mitchell, who is allowed to spend up to $3,500 before seeking city commission approval.

During Monday’s commission meeting, Seats proposed lowering the amount of money Mitchell can spend without prior approval to $1,000. That proposal failed 5-4. The Finance Committee’s chairman, Commissioner Edward Isom, said he is sending the resolution back to the full body to again be considered. Isom was one of the four commissioners who tried to get the resolution approved Monday.

Singleton said after the meeting Wednesday that he voted against the proposal Monday because he felt that $1,000 was too low and he needed more information.

Seats and Muhammad have said at several meetings that they are concerned about $3,400 in spending Mitchell already paid for in ads in the Benton Spirit, a community newspaper.

Muhammad said the money was given to the newspaper even though only three of the nine ads have run. He said contractors shouldn’t get paid until the work is done.

Mitchell said the Benton Spirit ads are in response to commissioners asking him to help them get information to the neighborhoods.

“Are we going to continue to be the city that we are or are we going to be the city that we want to be?” he said.

Seats said the city commission still needs to approve all spending, even if it doesn’t require preapproval.

“We vote on every dime that comes out of the city,” he said. 

But he said Mitchell is handing out checks before they are approved by the city commission.

Seats and Muhammad said they also question Mitchell’s hiring of Emma Kinnard of Benton Harbor to do landscaping around city hall, and to put two pots of plants in windows in the stairway.

Muhammad said Mitchell got around the $3,500 spending limit by paying Kinnard in smaller chunks which, that when added together, total more than $3,500. Muhammad questioned if Mitchell was trying to do the same thing with the retreat. He said city commissioners haven’t been asked to approve the retreat.

In addition, he said the advertising and landscaping work should have been bid out so the city could get the best price and avoid the appearance of favoritism.

“You have many other landscaping contractors in the city of Benton Harbor who should be afforded the opportunity to bid on contracted services,” Muhammad said after the meeting.

Mitchell did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege