Five candidates interview for Royal Oak city manager

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — Development, energy efficiency and navigating controversies were among the topics discussed Saturday by candidates for Royal Oak's vacant city manager position.

Five people are vying for the spot that opened after City Manager Don Johnson announced his retirement in June. David Gillam is Royal Oak's interim city manager.

The applicants answered a series of questions from Royal Oak City Commission members during a four-hour meeting at City Hall on Saturday. 

Sheryl Mitchell, Lathrup Village city administrator, passes out packets of information to the mayor and city commissioners before her interview.

The candidates are: Pontiac Deputy Mayor Jane DiSessa; Paul Brake, city manager of Morgantown, W.Va.; Reid “Shea” Charles, interim CEO of the Michigan Municipal Service Authority; Lathrup Village City Administrator Sheryl Mitchell; and Oak Park City Manager Erik Tungate.

Each candidate was asked the same questions, including why they were interested in the job, examples of how they'd collaborated with others in the past, how they would help address diversity and climate change, how they handled past controversies, and how long they expected to stay on the job if hired.

Royal Oak Mayor Michael Fournier, left, City Attorney David Gillam, Mayor Pro Tem Pat Paruch and commissioners Melanie Macey and Randy LeVasseur question city manager candidate Sheryl Mitchell, Lathrup Village city administrator at City Hall in Royal Oak on Feb. 22, 2020.

Tungate, who lives in Royal Oak, said he's qualified for the position because he currently is city manager in a similar city.

"Many of the things we deal with in Oak Park are dealt with in Royal Oak, only on a larger scale," Tungate said. "There’s an infrastructure issue here and in Oak Park, and so putting together a plan that'll work is paramount.

Oak Park City Manager Erik Tungate answers questions from the city commissioners and the mayor.

"We built a new city hall during my tenure, which was $1 million under budget," Tungate said. "Every day we talked about ways we could save money and find value."

Mitchell said she'd bring a hands-on approach to the job.

"With any strategic plan, it's important to hear the voices of those who’’l be impacted," she said. "Too often, you’ll only have elected officials involved. ... I'm not a person who sits in an ivory tower. I like to get out and see what's going on.

"But you have to be robust in your approach," Mitchell said. "You can't just put up a piece of paper at City Hall and hope people will respond. I like town halls, having sessions throughout the city ... in churches, coffee shops, restaurants and parks."

Mayor Michael Fournier greets city manager candidate Jane Bais DiSessa, left, Pontiac’s deputy mayor.

DiSessa said she had the experience needed to be Royal Oak's city manager. 

"I’ve worked in many areas (of government) in two states and seven cities, and in four of them I’ve been the chief executive officer," she said. 

DiSessa said she dealt with a lot of issues — including angry residents — after Pontiac came out of seven years of state oversight in 2016.

"Our city was coming out of emergency management, and we had a lot of discord with residents who were not pleased," she said. "They're still angry about the changes the emergency manager has done. ... These things impact people's lives."

As city commissioner Sharlan Douglas, left, listens, Commissioner Kyle DuBuc questions city manager candidate Erik Tungate about diversity issues.

Brake said he has experience working with West Virginia University in his city, which would help in Royal Oak, where Oakland Community College is located.

"The greatest skill I've gained is relationship-building — meeting people one-on-one, making promises and following up on them," Brake said.

Charles said he helped quell public outcry in 2005 while serving as Howell's city manager, when an auction house announced it planned to sell a KKK robe on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

"Howell has an unfair reputation of not being welcoming," he said. "(The robe's auction) became an incredibly contentious issue, and it opened a lot of old wounds. The community came together and stated 'hate has no home here.' That's something we led the community through. ... We brought in different parties, and coordinated how to deal with it."

Reid “Shea” Charles, interim CEO of the Michigan Municipal Service Authority, answers questions from the mayor and city commissioners.

Charles added: "I bring to the table an understanding of how communities work. That skill set marries nicely with what Royal Oak has to offer. It has a lot going on with downtown development, and the key is finding balance between downtown and the neighborhoods."

When asked how she would work to further diversify Royal Oak DiSessa said she would focus on a diversity of ideas, as well as gender and race.

"When we say diversity, people think of race and sex, but it's more than that," she said. "There are different economic strategies and philosophies.”

Tungate was asked how he'd address climate change, and said he'd done environmentally-friendly work in Oak Park.

"We are one of a handful of communities that have gone to LED street-lighting," he said. "Many have shied away from it because of the capital investment, but the savings after three-and-a-half years is about $150,000 a year. That sounds small, but it all adds up to save taxpayers money."

Members of the commission laughed after Mitchell answered how long she planned to stay on the job, if hired.

"I can guarantee I'll be working for at least seven years, because I've got student loans to pay off," she said.

The five candidates who were interviewed Saturday were drawn from a pool of 160 people who applied for the position during a nationwide search.

Following the interviews, the commission originally planned to discuss the candidates Saturday, and decide which to call back for a second interview. Instead, the commission voted to wait until after Monday's commission meeting, to give them time to study a video of the candidates' answers.

A “meet the candidates” event is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. March 12 at Royal Oak City Hall, 211 S. Williams.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN