Metroparks director Phifer quits in middle of probe

The embattled executive director of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks resigned from his position on Monday, officials said.

George Phifer’s resignation comes nearly two months after he was placed on paid administrative leave as part of an internal investigation. Officials have not given any reason for the probe.

“On August 14, 2017, George Phifer submitted his written resignation from the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority effective immediately,” said Michael Reese, police chief for the authority, in an email Wednesday. “On the same date, (Huron-Clinton Metroparks) accepted Mr. Phifer’s resignation.”

George Phifer.

The authority named Reese acting director in June, when it placed Phifer on the paid leave.

“At this time, I still remain acting director,” Reese said.

Phifer joined the Metroparks as the chief of police in 2008. He had led the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority system since 2015.

The system, which employs more than 200 full-time workers and more than 800 part-time workers, has a budget of about $62 million. Funding comes from property tax revenues and vehicle entry fees.

The authority operates 13 parks, which cover almost 25,000 acres throughout southeast Michigan serving an average of more than 8 million visitors annually.

After Phifer became executive director, Reese came out of retirement to take Phifer’s place as police chief of the Metroparks. Reese has nearly 40 years of experience in law enforcement and most recently served as Sterling Heights police chief from 2008 until his retirement in 2015. 

Attempts to reach Phifer were unsuccessful Wednesday.

In June, the way the park system handles cutting its fields drew outcry after a photo circulating on Facebook showed a fawn that apparently died while crews cut grass with a tractor mower at Stony Creek Metropark.

The Macomb County Audubon Society was among groups and residents that complained. The society said 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,” said Randy Baker, president of the Macomb County Audubon Society, in a letter to the authority board. “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.”

Authority board secretary Bernard Parker, who represents Wayne County, said he is not aware of the reason why Phifer resigned.

“I don’t know any more than the chair, who called the board to tell us that he resigned, and that’s all he said,” Parker said. “I didn’t expect it. I guess everyone has the right to resign when they feel like it, but I don’t know anything else.”

Timothy McCarthy, authority board chairman, could not be reached on Wednesday. 

Based in Brighton, the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority is a regional, quasi-public park district that encompasses Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw and Livingston counties. It’s governed by a board of commissioners, which represents each of the five member counties.

The next advisory board meeting will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 14 at the Lake Erie Metro Park in Brownstown. A full schedule can be found online.