City awaits period of state management

By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers

LINCOLN PARK — The argument against what some City Council members considered too much state control over Lincoln Park management under a consent agreement will likely result in the city surrendering all authority to an emergency manager.

“I don’t think it’s an ‘if’ situation,” Mayor Thomas Karnes said. “The consent agreement wasn’t approved. We’re going to have an emergency manager almost guaranteed.”

Twice last week the City Council did not reach a needed majority vote to approve the terms of an agreement with the state by Friday’s deadline. On Tuesday the council voted 4-3 against the agreement, with councilors Tom Murphy, Deborah Henderson, Mark Kandes and Larry Kelsey rejecting the terms; Karnes and Councilmen Elliott Zelenak and Mario DiSanto voted to approve the agreement.

During and after that meeting City Attorney Ed Zelenak encouraged the council to reconsider. Karnes said that a second meeting was scheduled for Thursday after city and state officials modified portions of the agreement.

Karnes said he understood council opinions about state authority, but that the agreement — unlike the placement of an emergency manager — allowed city officials to have at least some input during the length of the agreement.

“I’m not happy with everything in it,” Karnes said. “But it still leaves us a little say in how things are done.”

Council again rejected the agreement Thursday during a special meeting and study session. The vote ended in a 3-3 tie — Henderson was unavailable due to prior travel plans and no votes had changed since Tuesday — again failing to produce a majority approval.

Among the opportunities Karnes said were — for now — lost with the rejection of a consent agreement was to have a city manager actively working with the state oversight panel. Friday marked City Manager Joe Merucci’s final day on the job, and several interview sessions this month with potential successors failed to result in an appointment.

Karnes said Friday the question of making that appointment became moot.

“There’s no purpose of getting a city manager,” Karnes said. “The emergency manager will be here for a minimum of 18 months, more likely 36. Why waste the salary? As it stands now we’ll turn control of the city over to an unidentified person.”

The consent agreement with the state would have provided a city manager with additional authority to draft a financial plan — which would then require council approval before being submitted to state treasury officials.

A state-appointed emergency manager will, Karnes said, have near-total authority and city council’s role will be greatly reduced.

“To me, personally, it’s going down without fighting,” Karnes said. “We’re turning it over to them and saying, ‘We can’t do it,’ when under the consent agreement we would have had more choices.”

Karnes expects to learn more this week as to the state’s timeline and process for the appointment of an emergency manager.

It may take a year, two or more to erase the estimated $2 million deficit from the municipal budget, but Karnes said he was confident that the city and its people will overcome this phase of its history.

“Whether it’s an emergency manager or whatever, we’ll get through this bump in the road,” Karnes said. “Lincoln Park will come out stronger at the tail end of this.”

(James Mitchell can be reached at jmitchell@bewickpublications.com.)