Detroit councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins resigns


Detroit — City Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins announced her surprise resignation Friday to take a job with a local nonprofit organization.

Jenkins, a social worker, was named the new chief executive officer of The Heat And Warmth Fund, a group serving low-income people who need assistance with utility bills.

Jenkins was elected to the City Council in 2009 and is quitting at a time when the city is near the end of its landmark bankruptcy case. Her last day will be Nov. 7.

"I believe that the city is emerging from its most difficult time. We will come through the bankruptcy and the city will have a better balance sheet than it's had in years," Jenkins told The Detroit News on Friday. "The mayor and City Council are certainly on the right track as it relates to improving services throughout the city. I feel good about the city's future and I feel good about the part I've been able to play in moving our future forward."

Jenkins said the conversation with THAW began several weeks ago. It was a "tough decision," but the right one for her, she said.

"None of us are able to control timing and circumstances," she said. "This was an opportunity. It just happened to come at this time and it still gives me an opportunity to help thousands of families, which is what my life work has been all about."

The new, at-will position with the statewide organization will keep Jenkins based in the city. She and her husband, Carl Bentley, an executive with Strategic Staffing Solutions, have no plans to move, she said.

"My commitment to this city has not changed," Jenkins said, adding she'll be here "for the long haul."

Jenkins declined to discuss her compensation with THAW, but said she's "never selected a job based on pay."

Detroit's council members are paid about $77,000 per year. Compensation of Jenkins' predecessor at THAW was $226,751 annually, according to the nonprofit's 2011 tax filing.

"Every job I've been in has been based on my belief in the mission of the organization and my ability to have a positive impact," she said.

Jenkins said she reached out to all of her colleagues and Mayor Mike Duggan on Friday to inform them of her upcoming departure.

Duggan, in a released statement, called Jenkins "a friend and great partner" in Detroit's turnaround. He noted her support of public lighting and blight efforts as well as the creation of a regional water authority.

"I know she will do a great job over at THAW where she will continue her service to our community," Duggan said. "We look forward to working with Saunteel in her new capacity and continuing our partnership with City Council."

Under the new city charter, the council can appoint, by a two-thirds vote, an individual to fill Jenkins' seat until the next citywide election in 2016.

Jenkins has said her first experience with politics came during a college internship in the office of former City Council President Maryann Mahaffey. She later served as Mahaffey's chief of staff.

Last July, she took on the council's top seat after former president Charles Pugh went AWOL and pro tem Gary Brown stepped down to take a job on Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr's restructuring team.

The new nine-member panel was elected in November and after taking office in January it elected at-large council member Brenda Jones to serve as president. Jones could not be immediately reached for comment on Friday.

District 4 City Councilman Andre Spivey said Jenkins' departure will be a "tremendous loss."

"She served with integrity and great courage," said Spivey, noting Jenkins' institutional knowledge and lengthy service. "I'll miss her, but I know we all have personal goals that we have to achieve in life."

"This was an opportunity to further her career," he added. "While on the council, she gave everything she could. I appreciate that about her."

Spivey said the council will consult with its legal team for further clarity on how and when it will proceed with filling Jenkins' seat.

Jenkins, who serves on the council as an at-large member, said she wants residents to know that while her role may be changing, her commitment to Detroit will not.

"I will not stop doing everything I can personally and professionally to make this city a great place for people to live, work and play," she said.

Jenkins, a lifelong resident, grew up on the city's west side. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in social work from Wayne State University, holding positions with various nonprofits including Focus: HOPE and Healthy Start.

She also worked as a community educator for Detroit Edison, a family therapist at the Boys and Girls Republic and was development director for a tutoring company.

While on the City Council, Jenkins launched a Youth Violence Prevention Task Force. She later founded the Jovan Foundation, a nonprofit with a similar focus, named in honor of her brother, Jovan Willis, who was slain in a dispute over his jacket at the age of 14.

"My life's work has been all about helping people," she said. "I will continue to help, but in a different way."

Staff writer Robert Snell contributed