August 22, 2019

Grace cites ‘harassment and discrimination’ among reasons for resigning as city manager

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WEST BRANCH — City Manager Heather Grace said she was unable to continue to endure “the persistent and severe harassment and discrimination” directed toward her by some current and past city council members and members of other city boards, which is why she chose to resign.

The claims are part of her 2 1/2-page resignation letter she submitted to the city, which the Herald received last week through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“As a woman in a field dominated by men, I have unfortunately been no stranger to slights and digs directed at me due to my gender,” Grace writes in her letter. “However, the level of discrimination and harassment I have experienced while working for the city of West Branch is completely unacceptable, and despite my best repeated attempts to try to remedy the situation, these hostilities have only gotten worse in the past year and a half.”

Grace submitted her letter of resignation to the city in January, and the city council voted to accept it Jan. 4. It was effective Feb. 10. She served as city manager for a little more than four years — the city council voted 4-1 to hire her Sept. 8, 2014.

Grace claims in her letter that she had been repeatedly targeted by council members and members of other boards, “who have gone out of their way to publicly damage my professional reputation, simply because I pointed out to them things that they needed to do differently to avoid violations of state and local law.”

She calls herself a “whistleblower” on a number of issues, including one early in her tenure that she says led to an investigation by the Michigan State Police regarding questionable uses of taxpayer funds.

However, after contacting the MSP, the Herald was unable to verify any state police investigation involving the city or Grace.

Things came to a head last May during a city council meeting where there were multiple heated discussions among board members, members of the public, former Mayor Denise Lawrence and Grace. Nearly two-thirds of the three-hour meeting was spent discussing reported miscommunications among Grace, Lawrence and the city’s downtown development authority. Discussions stemmed from a suggestion that Grace had made in a letter to the DDA that if the DDA could not continue to pay for the city’s parking lots to be paved, the city could barricade them off for the winter and close them to reduce liability.

Grace references that meeting in her resignation letter, including the front-page article in the Herald the following week regarding the meeting. She cites “potentially slanderous statements” about her character that were reportedly made at that meeting.

“Another aspect of that extremely toxic and hostile meeting was that one individual, who was then a member of the public, also went out of her way to spend a good deal of time making potentially slanderous statements about me, despite the fact that she admitted that she had never even met me,” Grace writes. “This same individual has since become an elected member of the West Branch City Council, and during her thus-far brief tenure, has continued to treat me with hostility, even refusing to meet with me individually to even attempt to remedy the situation.”

Grace says she has endured countless instances of “hostility, beratement and bullying.”

“Though I would have loved to continue to serve my community, I am no longer able to tolerate such a hostile and discriminatory work environment, even despite the fact that my leaving will cause an undue financial hardship on my family,” she writes. “Therefore, I feel that I have no choice but to submit my resignation at this time, in the hopes that this will be the wakeup call that is needed to help push for the reform and change that is necessary for the city of West Branch to move past a ‘good old boys’ culture of favoritism, sexism and bullying, so that the city can instead move forward towards the prosperity and progress that its citizens deserve.”

Some parts of the letter were redacted. In its response to the Herald’s FOIA request, the city says parts were redacted because “the public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwanted invasion of an individual’s (privacy).”

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