DDA board denies director’s contract renewal

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Former Allen Park Downtown Development Authority board member Denise Hunt (left) expresses her anger at the DDA board Thursday evening for their failing to renew executive director James Sabo’s (second from left) contract. Evelyn Bowman (right), executive director of the Allen Park Chamber of Commerce, also supported Sabo. The DDA board voted 6-2 Thursday to not renew Sabo’s contract. He recently opposed a $2 million DDA unsecured loan to the Lifton Institute for Media Skills.

Sunday Times Newspapers

ALLEN PARK – The Downtown Development Authority board has decided to renew the contract of Executive Director C. James Sabo.

Members voted 6-2 to deny the renewal, despite the recommendation of the executive committee and a record of positive performance reviews.

Angelo DeGiulio and Dennis Luke, board and executive committee members, supported the renewal. The executive committee recommended a two-year contract extension with no raise or fringe benefit increase. Six of board members opposed the renewal: Jennifer Carbonaro, Tim Estheimer, Shelly Keenan, Julian Llamas, Gail Boomer and Tom Gunderson.

The board normally 10 members; Mayor Gary Burtka, who serves as chief executive officer, was not in attendance. A simple majority is required to pass a resolution.

Sabo has served for three years. His contract expires March 31, and he will be paid through that date, with adjustments for unused vacation time.

The contract included seven weeks of vacation in lieu of health insurance. Published reports put his salary in the upper $60,000-range.

Sources close to the situation believe Sabo’s opposition to a $2 million unsecured loan the authority made to the Lifton Institute for Media Skills played a role in the nonrenewal. The institute is associated with the Unity Studio Complex south of City Hall.

Board newcomer Gunderson said Sabo’s salary was too high. Board member Shelly Keenan said the board wanted to go in a “different direction,” but declined, despite Sabo’s urging, to describe that direction. Sabo expressed disappointment at the board’s unwillingness to provide him with feedback or reasons. He also acknowledged being disappointed that the board had voted to provide the $2 million unsecured loan to the Lifton Institute.

Sabo said he “loves this town” and its “incredible opportunities,” and that his disappointment also extends to the way his situation was handled.

Evelyn Bowman, executive director of the Allen Park Chamber of Commerce, thanked Sabo for his work on behalf of the city.

Denise Hunt, a former DDA board member, expressed her displeasure with the majority of the authority board. She asked current members facetiously if they would give her business an unsecured loan.

“We gave $2 million dollars to someone who has never paid a dime into it,” Hunt said of Jimmy Lifton, head of Unity Studios and the institute. “I have a real problem, because I have a business right down the street, and I want an unsecured business from this board. If he can get it, so should I.”

Hunt added that she has a “real problem with people on this board who voted for this money, and now have contracts with the city regarding that money.”

She said that if any DDA board members did any paid work for the Lifton Institute in the future, she would have a problem with it, saying that it was “as unethical as it gets.”

“This isn’t a place where you come to make money,” Hunt said. “We’re starting to sound like Detroit.”

Joanna Sabo, James’ wife, expressed her feelings to the DDA board.

“I’ve been watching this whole process, and I just wonder who is going to take James’ place when he goes,” she said. “I know how hard he’s worked for you. I know what you’ve done to our family. And I’d like to see who gets his job when he’s gone.”

Realtor Jeff Daniel added his support for Sabo.

”My plea to you is to seriously consider what James has done for our community in the last three years since he’s been here. Has that particular individual done what we’ve asked them to do?” He added that Sabo is “way above” many of the other DDA directors he deals with on a daily basis.

Sabo reminded the board earlier of his work to promote the city’s Bridal Mile and facade grant program. He also mentioned he has filed two letters concerning the conflict of interest of DDA board members who voted on the Lifton Institute loan and who are purported to have profited from the project by having work given to their businesses.