BENTON HARBOR — Former Benton Harbor City Manager Darwin Watson – fired by commissioners Monday evening – was back working for the city in less than 18 hours.
But it may not be for long, as Watson has apparently become a chess piece in an ongoing rift between warring factions of the city commission.
Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad called a news conference Tuesday afternoon to announce that he hired Watson as the city’s public works and utilities director, and as the chief of staff to the mayor. He said all department heads will report to Watson, who will report to him.
Because there is no assistant city manager, commissioners voted Monday to declare that the city is in a state of emergency and that the mayor would assume the city manager’s responsibilities until another manager is hired to oversee city operations.
Meanwhile, commissioners have called two special meetings for Thursday. The city’s Personnel and Finance Committee will meet at 6 p.m. to discuss the management of the city. Scheduled for 7 p.m. is a special city commission meeting, where commissioners are expected to consider appointing an interim city manager.
During the news conference Tuesday, Muhammad said the city is under a consent agreement with the state concerning the water plant and needs a public works director. While Watson was city manager, he also served as public works director.
“He also will serve as the chief of staff to ... help the office of mayor to fulfill the duties day-to-day of those responsibilities,” Muhammad said.
He said the city will be operated this way until the state of emergency is over.
Muhammad said the firing of Watson, which he opposed, was a “grossly negligent” and “extremely reckless” action taken by the commission majority.
Five commissioners approved Watson’s firing, while three voted against it, with one commissioner absent. Watson had been working day-to-day under an agreement he signed last November – an unusual arrangement for a city manager that could play a key role in any potential lawsuit.
Muhammad said Watson has done almost everything for the city during his 23 years of employment, including pushing a broom.
“His knowledge of the city and his management success – the city of Benton Harbor is in no position at this time to lose that,” he said. “... We have a lot of things pending and to recklessly terminate or fire him at this time and throw somebody in off the street ... is a travesty of justice.”
Once a city manager is hired, Muhammad said he didn’t know if Watson would keep the job as public works and utilities director.
When asked why Watson was fired, Muhammad would only say – “It’s election season.”
Muhammad is facing five challengers for the mayor’s seat in the Aug. 6 primary. Included in the field are three commissioners.
After the news conference, Commissioner Juanita Henry, one of the challengers for mayor, said, “Shame, shame.”
“One of the biggest reasons I decided to run for mayor of Benton Harbor is to not allow Marcus Muhammad to be the bully and to break the rules of the council,” she said.
Henry added that Muhammad has overstepped his bounds.
“That’s just wrong ... and disrespectful to the body,” she said. “It saddens me that someone would stoop that low.”
She said Muhammad has used Watson and the city attorney to block many of the actions approved by the majority of commissioners.
Henry said one of the reasons the city commission is divided is because of the way the emergency managers left the city.
The city had been under some kind of state oversight from April 2010 until July 1, 2017.
The city’s charter states that the assessor, attorney, finance director, clerk and city manager must report to the city commission.
But the city’s two consecutive emergency managers temporarily changed that and had those positions report to them, instead. The second emergency manager, Tony Saunders II, appointed Watson as the city manager in 2014 and ordered that department heads report to the city manager.
When the city commission took back full control, Muhammad said the department heads were to report to the city commission as stated in the city’s charter and that all emergency manager orders would no longer be valid.
But Henry said that’s not what happened. She said commissioners were told that only the mayor or city manager can ask questions of the attorney. At several city commission meetings, commissioners expressed frustration when they had questions for the attorney, but neither Muhammad nor Watson would allow the attorney to speak.
One example of Muhammad ignoring the will of the commission majority occurred last December when commissioners voted to amend council rules so items could be added to the agenda from the floor, Henry said. The amendment also made it possible for commissioners to suspend the rules of procedure for any reason, at the will of the majority.
Muhammad voted against that amendment, along with Commissioners Duane Seats and Sharon Henderson.
In the following months, several commissioners tried to bring motions from the floor or to suspend the rules, only to be told by Muhammad that something was wrong with the amendment and it couldn’t go into effect.
At the time, Henry said she asked Watson and the city’s attorney to fix the problem, but they did not.
When contacted by phone after the news conference, Commissioner Ron Singleton, who is running for mayor, said he has no problem with Watson working as the public works director, since he held that position before.
Commissioner C.F. Jones – also running for mayor – declined to comment.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege