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Detroit — The Huron-Clinton Metroparks Authority on Thursday appointed a deputy to its top job, two weeks after a judge described him as “bafflingly incompetent.”

In a surprise vote, seven commissioners voted unanimously to name Deputy Director George Phifer as executive director of the authority that operates 13 parks throughout southeast Michigan. The move comes six months after the board fired John McCulloch, Oakland County’s former drain commissioner, as executive director.

“George is a proven commodity... George has done a marvelous job as deputy director. Before that, he was a very good police chief,” said John Hertel, vice president of the authority’s board.

“When you see a vote like that, 7-0, that’s a strong indication of wholehearted support.”

McCulloch made $140,000 a year. A salary for Phifer, who makes about $116,000 as deputy director, has yet to be determined. A former captain with the Pontiac Police Department, Phifer was appointed parks police chief in 2008 and reorganized the department. Doing so irked some employees and prompted lawsuits, said Robert Marans, secretary of the authority.

On March 27, the Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a sex discrimination lawsuit against Phifer and the authority. Three employees claimed Phifer singled them out for humiliation. One claimed he called her “Officer Floppy” for how she wore her hat. Another said she was harassed over “grooming violations.”

In a concurring opinion, Judge Amy Ronayne Krause wrote that being a bad boss isn’t illegal.

“George Phifer is likely a bafflingly incompetent and counterproductively over-aggressive, manager. However, he appears to inflict himself upon his unfortunate subordinates in a sufficiently equal-opportunity manner that I am unable to perceive plaintiffs as having been discriminated against on the basis of sex or gender or the subject of retaliation,” the judge wrote.

“Being, in the words of the vernacular, a colossal jerk is not actually unlawful per se, and being arguably unfit for a particular supervisory job does not necessarily constitute an actionable offense.”

Marans said Phifer “rubbed people the wrong way” when he reorganized the police department but did so to save money and make it more efficient.

“He’s not incompetent,” Marans said. “He’s learned a hell of a lot over the past three years as deputy and demonstrated a fair amount of competence.”

Hertel said Phifer is “extremely competent.”

“Whenever you are trying to either make major changes or make improvements, you are always subject to criticism and attacks,” Hertel said.

Phifer declined comment on the lawsuit or judge’s opinion except to say “organizational change can be difficult.”

He added that he’s “an advocate for employees. They should have the resources and tools to do their job. And once given the tools, there is an expectation that employees will perform.”

Phifer said he intends to work closely with the board of system that has now had five directors in seven years.

Phifer’s appointment came during a meeting at Lake Erie Metropark in Brownstown and ends an interim arrangement in which longtime parks executive Greg Almas came out of retirement to oversee the system.

Almas had several months left on his contract, but Hertel and another board member, Harry Lester, moved to appoint Phifer. Lester is ailing and did so over the telephone, Marans said.

JKurth@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2513

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