Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 2, 2013

Another View: Changing of guard - emergency manager out

By The Herald-Palladium,, St. Joseph

---- — The Joseph Harris era in Benton Harbor will come to a close ... as the city's emergency financial manager moves aside for replacement Tony Saunders II ... We wish Harris well on his next stop — likely a sentiment not shared by his various foes on the Benton Harbor City Commission — because for all of the controversy, we believe Harris leaves the city in better shape than he found it upon his arrival in 2010.

That point should not be overlooked given the somewhat messy way in which the state cut a deal to move Harris out in the hopes his replacement could work better with the city's elected officials.

Time has a way of altering perception, but it is important to remember that when Harris began his tenure on April 1, 2010, the city's operations and finances were basically in shambles.

The city was deep in debt, facing a general fund shortfall of roughly $4 million, a pension fund shortfall of $1.5 million, plus outstanding debts to vendors of nearly $1 million.

Harris quickly went to work slashing city expenses and consolidating job duties.

The resulting layoffs that Harris ordered were controversial and painful, and it didn't take the majority of city commissioners long to paint Harris as a villainous dictator — especially after he stripped the commission of virtually all of its power.

But the commission's portrayal of Harris was not fair, as Harris was appointed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm for the very purpose of making the hard decisions that previous commissioners, mayors and the various city managers simply would not make.

Ideally, Harris would be leaving this post with city finances in impeccable order.

Unfortunately that's not the case. The city still has a long climb to get out of debt ...

Although Harris is adept at crunching the numbers, and his spine is as stiff as they come — both necessary traits for this sort of difficult work — Harris fell short in part because he often lacked the communication and political skills to better explain and sell his decisions to skeptical city residents, and to better work with political foes. ...

Saunders will need to find a way to work with the City Commission majority, but still make the difficult decisions necessary to return the city to an even financial footing. ...

If Saunders can make the difficult decisions, but manage to better work with commissioners — and by extension city residents — in time Saunders could leave Benton Harbor as a hero of sorts. Harris will surely be an afterthought by then, but his work here should not be forgotten. ...

-- The Herald-Palladium, St. Joseph