BENTON HARBOR — Darwin Watson’s days as city manager of Benton Harbor may be numbered.

When city commissioners came out of closed session Monday, Commissioner Juanita Henry put a motion on the floor to “no longer accept the employment of the city manager.”

“My position is that the city manager is at the will and pleasure of the commission, and there’s no pleasure anymore with his services,” she said, without elaborating on why she is displeased with Watson’s performance as city manager.

Mayor Marcus Muhammad asked if she means that Watson should clean his office out that night.

“That is exactly what I am saying,” Henry said.

Muhammad said the problem is that the city has no assistant city manager and the commissioners approved earlier this month $1 million in street repairs to be done with the city income tax money.

“Who will be running the city tomorrow?” he said. “Who’s going to put together and ... execute the plan the plan to fix the streets? Who’s going to be working with the contractors?”

He said it’s “reckless” and “irresponsible” to ask the city manager to clean out his desk immediately.

“It’s a return to the old rigamarole that sunk this city into emergency management,” he said. “... If you think he needs to do a better job, that’s one thing. But to leave this city without a city manager is wrong. And the people deserve better. They want the streets fixed.”

In addition, Muhammad said Henry is “setting up a hostile work environment” and opening the door to litigation.

Henry said the City Commission has fought previous court battles and won.

“If we’re not getting what we need to make this government for the people, by the people, of the people, then we need to put new heads in to do it because it’s not working now,” she said.

City Commissioner MaryAlice Adams, who supported Henry’s motion to effectively fire Watson, said the commissioners could appoint one of the department heads as the acting city manager.

Muhammad said the city staff has no one with city manager experience. 

“We already don’t have a finance director,” he said. “Now you want to fire the manager, who has had ... five consecutive balanced budgets, four consecutive clean audits. The last audit clean and unmodified. Surplus. Rainy day fund. And now we’re putting forth a plan to fix the infrastructure in the community and out of nowhere, you’re going to fire the manager.”

Muhammad said that by charter, the city must have a city manager. And if there isn’t a city manager, the charter calls for the mayor to step into that position.

“And I know you don’t want that,” he said.

Adams said each commissioner has one vote, the same as the mayor.

“Ain’t nobody going to keep on listening to the stuff that you think that you bully folks about about what we should do,” she said. 

City Commissioner Duane Seats said they should hold a special meeting to discuss the management of the city.

“To move without planning is brazenly planning to fail,” he said. “... Tonight, I just don’t feel that this is the right way to handle this situation.”

Commissioners approved tabling Henry’s motion until a special meeting could be held at 7 p.m. July 22 to discuss the “management of the city.”

This isn’t the first time some city commissioners have expressed displeasure with Watson’s performance.

At a special meeting March 7, five city commissioners approved issuing a vote of no confidence against him. Approving the motion were Adams and Henry along with Commissioners Ron Singleton, C.F. Jones and Edward Isom.

Watson has worked for the city for the past 23 years in various capacities, including the last one as the public works director. 

He was first given a one-year contract as city manager on Feb. 10, 2014, by then-Emergency Manager Tony Saunders II. 

In January 2015, an attempt to demote him to his previous position failed by a vote of 4-4.

City commissioners approved extending his contract for one year in February 2014 and for two years in February 2016. Both times were while the city was under some type of state control, which ended July 1, 2017.

At a special meeting in February 2018, the commissioners voted not to extend his contract, meaning he started working for the city on a day-to-day basis. 

Also at Monday’s meeting, commissioners approved:

• starting a search for a new finance director

• giving employees with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union a 2 percent raise and reinstating six paid holidays

• appointing Miguel Clark to the city’s Personnel & Finance Committee

• reappointing Richard Hensel to the Benton Harbor Library Board

• reappointing Jenny Miner to the city’s Downtown Development Authority

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