Huron-Clinton Metroparks director on leave during probe

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

The executive director of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks has been placed on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation, according to a memo sent to authority staff.

No reason was given for the investigation involving George Phifer, who has headed the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority system since 2015. The authority operates 13 parks throughout southeast Michigan.

In the June 21 memo, Timothy J. McCarthy, chairman of the authority’s board of commissioners, wrote that staff was expected to give their full cooperation to investigators.

“Absent written authorization from me, staff members are prohibited from divulging the fact or details of the matter or investigation to the media or anyone else outside of the HCMA,” McCarthy wrote.

The memo was dated the same day the authority board held a closed session during a special meeting to discuss attorney-client privileged communication.

McCarthy referred media inquiries to acting director Michael Reese.

Reese said Monday he could not comment on personnel matters, but did confirm that he was acting director.

“It is business as usual,” Reese said. “The parks are open. Everything is as it should be despite what’s presently going on.”

Phifer could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon. An automatic email response noted that he would be “out of the office until further notice.”

Management of the Metroparks system recently came under fire for the way it handles cutting fields. Last month, a photo began circulating on Facebook of a fawn that apparently died while crews cut grass with a tractor mower at Stony Creek Metropark.

Among the complaints were from the Macomb County Audubon Society, which says the authority has expanded its mowing into areas that are essential habitat for birds, mammals and other wildlife.

“Excuses made by the current director and his subordinates have been that this excessive cutting is in an effort to control invasive species,” Randy Baker, president of the Macomb County Audubon Society, wrote in a letter to the authority board this month. “The current management practices of mowing and removing dead snags does not conform to the appropriate and approved management practices for controlling invasive species. Mr. Phifer’s decisions to mow and to remove dead snags will in fact encourage the spread of invasive species.”

Phifer joined the Metroparks in September 2008 as chief of police and later became deputy director.

Phifer faced criticism prior to his appointment to the top job. In 2015, an appeals judge called him “bafflingly incompetent,” while upholding a lower court’s dismissal of a sex discrimination lawsuit against him.

At the time, Judge Amy Ronayne Krause of the Court of Appeals wrote in an opinion that Phifer “appears to inflict himself upon his unfortunate subordinates in a sufficiently equal-opportunity manner.” She said she did not perceive discrimination on the basis of sex or gender. Krause wrote that being a bad boss isn’t illegal.