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Benton Harbor’s emergency manager calls his departure 'bittersweet'

Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Joe Harris says he’s proud of his accomplishments in his nearly three years running the city. Harris said it was the most exciting job he’s ever had, describing his departure as “bittersweet."

As he entered his press conference Wednesday afternoon, Harris flashed a big smile at the TV cameras and reporters, some city staff and a few elected leaders. He played “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” a fitting Sammy Davis Jr. version of the tune as he walked into the room.

“Don’t say a mumbling word about me when I’m gone,” Harris sang, tapping his foot along with the beat.

Last week the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board voted to end Harris’ contract as emergency manager of Benton Harbor. His last day is January 31. The board hired Tony Saunders II,who will start the next day.

The city still has a deficit. It still owes money to its pension fund and to other municipalities. By the end of this week, Harris is going to ask the same board that ended his contract for a $3.9 million emergency loan for the city.

Still, Harris listed dozens of improvements he’s made.

“The way that the city is being run now is nothing like the way it was being run three years ago. It is being run professionally,” Harris said. He points to massive technology upgrades, including computers, security, software and phones, as well as several new, “competent” people in key staff positions.

He listed improvements for the public, including a number of park improvements, heating and air conditioning  at City Hall, renovated city chambers, a community swimming pool at the high school, an ice rink, and the city’s old recreation center that will reopen this month.

Personality differences, communication play a big role

Harris admits personality differences between himself and elected leadersbecame a problem.

“There are rumors out there that I don’t get along with City Commission,” Harris said glancing down, lowering his voice. “Now, if you believe that -- it’s because it’s true,” he added.

Harris says that’s not the way he wanted it. He tried to “mend fences,” but it didn’t happen.

“It is appropriate to find someone who could, perhaps, work with the Commission. I think that’s a good idea,” Harris said of the timing of his replacement.

“You have to be able to communicate and get along with the people who are supposed to represent the people, even if you disagree with their opinion,” City Commissioner Sharon Henderson said after listening to Harris’s press conference. “You have to have this input,” she said.

Henderson says Harris has made some positive changes in the city and she wished him well.

Commissioner Juanita Henry was not as convinced the changes Harris has made have been positive.

“He’s made so many mistakes that has caused the citizens of Benton Harbor, a poor community, to be burdened,” Henry said. Benton Harbor had the lowest household income of any city in Michigan in the 2010 census.

“I use the pool, the parks, but quality of life means you’re able to pay your rent, buy groceries, pay your water bill,” she added. The city’s rising water bills to pay for a new water plant have been a big concern among residents. The plant was built before Harris was appointed.

City Commissioner Trenton Bowens said Harris was honest about his “damaged” relationship with the city’s elected body.  He says commissioners and Harris both played a role in that.

“It was a lot of rhetoric and lot of mistrust and if you have both of those you’re not going to be able to accomplish anything,” Bowens said.

Strong optimism about the “new guy”

Bowens is 24-years-old, just a few years younger than the incoming emergency manager. Bowens, Henderson and other Commissioners were optimistic about Tony Saunders, who begins Feb. 1.

Henderson said she was a little surprised to get a call from Saunders Tuesday. “He seems very enthusiastic about working with this Commission and moving this city forward with what information he’s been given,” Henderson said.

Bowens hopes Saunders will be up front with Commissioners and open to new ideas.

“But also don’t act like a dictator. Act like a city manager. You know? You’re 27-years-old, this is gonna be great for you. And you don’t want to be on the Rachel Maddow show for doing something weird or whatever. You don’t want to make national news,” Bowens said.

Hundreds of people took part in protestsagainst Harris and the new emergency manager law when it was enacted in the spring of 2011.

Harris was optimistic too. He’s scheduled to have lunch with Saunders Monday. He said he’ll work with the new emergency manager through the transition later this month.

What’s next for Harris? Maybe another emergency manager job?

Harris says he’d enjoy teaching again or being an emergency manager somewhere else. “It wasn’t perfect but it was the accomplishments; that’s what’s fulfilling,” Harris said.

“Being able to not only make the recommendations but to implement the recommendations – that’s what I like, as opposed to making recommendations that are not accepted,” Harris said.

He said he’d be happy to work for the state again, should the opportunity arise. He says the state treasurer was positive about his departure.

But he said it would be much “too early to even indicate” what opportunities he has ahead because “by doing so it muddies thing up a bit."

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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