By Susan Bromley
Ortonville- David Trent has been fired as village manager.
The exact reasons why the village council voted 4-2 to terminate Trent July 5 remain murky due to a closed session discussion that preceded the termination vote, and refusal of members who voted for his dismissal to comment on both what transpired during that session, or their decision that followed. Trustees Mark Butzu, Dan Eschmann, Coleen Skornicka and Karen Sleva voted to terminate Trent. Council President Wayne Wills and Trustee Keith Dylus voted against the firing. Trustee Tonja Brice was absent from the meeting.
Several clues regarding the firing could be detected during a July 10 special council meeting called to discuss the village manager’s departure terms, as well as an interim manager proposal, and review of the job description for village manager.
At the July 10 meeting, Skornicka noted the village had no obligation to pay the terminated village manager any severance. She quoted from the village personnel policy, “Separation due to dismissal because of policy infraction may be immediate without anything except what is earned.”
Dylus said paying Trent’s salary through the end of July would be fair and made a motion to do so, which was supported by Brice. He then asked, “What were the policy infractions to cause immediate dismissal?”
Dylus received no response and a vague exchange about a DPW safety violation followed, which Wills said was reason for a reprimand, not a dismissal.
“When the master plan calls for trails and sewage facilities and we choose to ignore— that’s on us,” said Wills. “Shame on us, not the village manager.” The council unanimously approved Trent, a Salem Township resident and trustee for that community, as village manager in October, but that was a different council from the one elected just two weeks after Trent’s hiring, with incumbents Debbie Baker and Courtney McClerren ousted and Butzu and Sleva replacing them. The new council has shown little solidarity in actions the village manager has taken. The village manager is to act on behalf of the council, but the council has displayed divisions over large issues during Trent’s tenure, with conflicting directions.
In November, roughly a month after he started working for the village, Trent revived talk of sewers, the first real discussion on the issue since voters overwhelmingly shot down a proposal a year earlier to bring that infrastructure to the village. The manager noted he planned to discuss a collaborative effort with Brandon and Groveland townships, and meet with Rowe Engineering in the new year. In April, Trent hosted the first of two community forums regarding sewers as he sought to gauge interest in a collaborative initiative for a wastewater treatment system that would service businesses in the village and Brandon and Groveland townships. However, it appeared that he had very limited interest from village officials, as the only councilmember who attended either forum was Wills.
But sewers weren’t the only conflict that surfaced. There were also disputes over a proposed septic ordinance and correspondence from Trent to village residents whose septic systems were deemed possibly at risk of failure; miscommunication about management of the skate park; and division over actions regarding trails.
In January, Trent applied for a $35,000 DNR grant to be used for establishment of the Iron Belle Trail, but when he brought his plans for more grant applications regarding the trail to the council for approval in February, he received pushback in a 3-2 split decision, with Butzu and Sleva voting against the plan, and Wills, Brice and Dylus voting in favor. In March, with a full council in attendance at a public hearing on the trail and many objections to the project from residents, the council voted 6-1 against applying for the grants. In April, Eschmann put an end to discussion of using a portion of a 47-acre parcel of land the village owns as a connection to the Iron Belle Trail after he made a motion to designate the property as the Ortonville Wildlife Preservation Park. The motion, which forbids use of off-road vehicles, motor bikes, hunting, and development of bike or foot path or trails on the property, passed in a 4-2 vote, with Eschmann, Sleva, Skornicka and Butzu voting yes. Wills and Brice voted against the measure. Dylus was absent.
In a show of unity, the council voted unanimously to pursue sidewalk expansion in the village by approving a proposal to have Rowe Professional Services to provide engineering and design services for the construction of sidewalks along Narrin, Ball and Myron streets, but that optimism was short-lived. In June, the council was again in unanimous agreement, this time to approve their budget without sidewalk improvements. At that same June 26 meeting, an overt sign that Trent’s job was in jeopardy came when Butzu requested a closed session be held that evening for a personnel evaluation of the village manager. After Wills objected due to impropriety and possible legal repercussions, Butzu withdrew the motion.
Trent, reached by phone, declined to comment on the reason for his dismissal.
The motion to pay Trent’s salary through the end of July failed 4-3 at Monday’s special meeting. The council unanimously agreed to appoint as interim manager John Lyons, who previously served as village manager for several years prior to retiring last May. He was replaced by Mike Lee, who resigned in August.
Also at Monday’s meeting, the village council made adjustments to the village manager job description, notably, that the village manager shall carry out the policies and directives of the village council as a whole, not any one individual councilmember.
Wills said there were “big issues with the village manager not giving enough advance notice with recommendations.”
Eschmann said, “We want the village manager to be an administrator of grants, but we want him to request approval from the council with advance notice where matching funds are needed.”
Brice also advised that the employee policy manual should be amended to spell out disciplinary steps when needed.
Dylus agreed that the village manager should be working on what the council as a whole wants, not what one councilmember wants.
Following the meeting, Eschmann, Skornicka and Sleva all declined to comment on the termination of Trent, with Sleva saying that Wills was the spokesperson for the council, despite his minority vote to retain Trent.
Wills at first declined comment as well, but on Wednesday, by phone, said, “The council didn’t like the direction Trent was going and the lines of communication and the lack of advance notice. Miscommunication or the lack of it is pretty important in the decision-making process. I’m not going to share anything more because it was a closed session, concealed and confidential. Not only do I not want to say anything legally, I don’t want to say anything that will put the community in jeopardy.”
The village council is looking for a new village manager. Details on the job description, requirements and application are available at www.ortonvillevillage.com. Applications are due by 5 p.m., Aug. 4 or must have a postmark date of Aug. 4.
By Susan Bromley