By Charles Sercombe
Hamtramck’s search for a new city manager kicked off this week.
The search company hired to conduct the head-hunting operation, GovHR, held two public forums this week, the first on Tuesday and the second on Thursday, held after The Review went to press.
The company said it expects to take 12 weeks, starting this week, to come up with a pool of candidates for the city council to pick from.
At Tuesday’s public forum, held at 1 p.m. in city hall on a rainy day, only three people showed up (not counting a Review reporter).
Despite the lack of public involvement, the spirited discussion that ensued made up for the small number of those attending.
Jaymes Vettraino of govHR walked through the handful of phases the company will take in putting together a list of candidates for the job.
The goal, he said, “is to make a match” – something the city has not been successful in achieving the last several years. If all goes right, he said, the quality of the candidates will “make it very hard for the city council to decide.”
Part of the process is finding out what attributes and qualities the public wants in a city manager.
Sharon Buttry, of the Hamtramck Community Initiative, said candidates must be made aware that the city’s ethnic demographics have changed in the last 30 years.
Indeed they have. The city was once the home to mostly Polish-Americans, but that ethnic majority has shrunk to a minority. Now, there is a sizeable community of immigrants from Bangladesh and an ever-increasing population of Yemeni-Americans.
What this has resulted in, Buttry said, is elections that are decided by just a handful of votes between candidates.
That narrowness in election results has intensified local politics.
“Democracy really matters here,” Buttry said.
This demands that the next city manager become “aware of the political dynamics.”
A common fault, she said, is that past city managers made “snap judgments” about elected officials and wrote them off. To overcome this, Buttry stressed, it’s important for the next city manager to be endlessly curious about the community and what makes it tick.
While this ethnic/political makeup could be a challenge for even the most seasoned city manager, Hamtramck offers a unique chance to study the “laboratory of American civic life,” she said.
At the same time, Hamtramck, like many small towns, can also be wary of outsiders. Buttry said she has lived here for over 20 years but still feels shunned, to a degree, by longtime residents.
“Hamtramck is a very parochial place,” she said.
Buttry’s intern at the Hamtramck Community Initiative, Shaheda Ferdose, who is a student at Wayne State University, said her wish list for a new city manager would include someone who is “more cultural.”
The ideal candidate, she said, will “know the hardships immigrants face.”
One way to embed within the community, Ferdose said, is to work closely with young residents.
Robert Zwolak, who has played several roles in city positions in the past, said the job of rounding up candidates – given the city’s diversity and other challenges – is an “impossible task.”
One of the key challenges includes getting the city out of state oversight, which he expects will take at least another two years.
Hamtramck had been under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager for 18 months after it hit a financial crisis. Before the EM left office, a city manager was hired. Her contract expired at the end of June.
A majority of city councilmembers voted to not extend that city manager’s contract.
Zwolak said the constant change in city management has been part of the city’s problem.
The next city manager, he said, has to allow city hall department heads to be able to freely interact with the public and elected officials – something that the former city manager clamped down on.
“They (department heads) were afraid to speak out,” Zwolak said.