New City Manager Robert Belleman seeks East Lansing’s trust
When he was hired as East Lansing's city manager last month, Robert Belleman said he wanted the community to get to know him. Sitting down for an interview at City Hall, he reflected on his childhood in Detroit, where resources were tight for him and his nine siblings.
"I paid for my own high school and started working when I was a freshman in high school delivering the Detroit News so that I could afford a parochial school that my parents wanted us to attend," Belleman said. "I've always been working, I've tried to do what's right. And I value people's input."
Belleman has been East Lansing’s new city manager for just under three weeks. He’s joining the city during a challenging period, with a number of staff vacancies and concerns about the city council’s direction.
Controversy has also loomed over his appointment amid allegations he had fostered a toxic work environment at his previous job.
Belleman has spent his career working in local government. Much of that time was in Bay City, which included a 10-year stint as its city manager. Most recently, he was the controller and chief administrative officer for the Saginaw County Board of Commissioners.
Having never been elected to office, Belleman said most of his knowledge about economic development and municipality management came on-the job, as he worked alongside elected officials to serve their communities. He said that role has gotten more difficult in recent years.
"I joke that budgeting isn't as fun as it used to be because since 2008, it's always governments are cutting," Belleman explained. "How can we partner with other agencies to provide services, leverage that partnership, to continue to provide quality services while living within our means?"
With less than a month under his belt, he said it’s too early to set goals for what he’d like to accomplish as East Lansing's city manager, though he's heard some priorities from his staff.
"Affordable housing seems to be the more current topic of discussion, so I really want to get a better understanding of what the goal is for affordable housing," he said. "Who are we trying to serve? And what is that real price point that's affordable?”
Belleman also expressed an interest in cultivating further economic development in the city.
“It's important in East Lansing to continue the vibrancy of the community by growth but managing that growth so that it's not impeding the quality of life residents want," Belleman said. "It's kind of walking a tightrope.”
East Lansing’s government workforce has been going through a transitional period since the City Council fired its previous manager at the beginning of this year. There’s been a wave of staff departures, like the city clerk and deputy police chief. Several departments have been led by interim replacements for months.
To Belleman, it’s not surprising to see some turnover during leadership changes. The city manager hopes his role will bring some stability.
“You change a leader, and there's a void created a vacuum created and people get stressed, anxiety increases, so I see a lot of that,” he said.
An anonymous complaint earlier this year claimed the council was overreaching beyond its authority, bypassing the manager to give guidance to city staff — an act which would be prohibited under the City Charter.
Belleman said input from city staff can be valuable for the council.
“I always believe the council has a right to go to any department head, go to any employee and ask questions, get information," he said. "They got to be informed to make good decisions. You cross your line if you give direction, and I'm not aware of any of that happening here in East Lansing.”
The East Lansing City Council voted to appoint Belleman in August, amid pushback from residents that criticized his past job performance.
Earlier this year, the Saginaw County Board of Commissioners fired Belleman from his job as top administrator, with his former colleagues claiming he had fostered a “toxic work environment.”
At the meeting where his contract was terminated, a Saginaw County employee called Belleman a "bully" and accused him of verbal harassment. Other officials said the former county controller failed to respond to sexual harassment allegations and that staff morale and hiring worsened under his tenure.
Belleman said the allegations came as a surprise.
“I wasn't aware of any complaints or any toxic work environment. I had the tough job of telling people 'no,'" he said. "Especially elected officials."
In his job interview before the East Lansing City Council, Belleman said one of his former employees did not like him, acknowledging some relationships in the community were strained. But he said he wishes he got more feedback on what he did wrong.
“I wasn't given any specifics other than what was shared publicly," Belleman told WKAR. "I always try to grow. And so, if I've made a mistake or offended somebody, I'd like to know what it was so that I can look at it and say, 'Okay, I see it. I don't want to do that again. Thanks for helping me.'"
"But that didn't play out,” he added.
For now, Belleman is focused on getting to know East Lansing’s department leaders to gain their trust.
“They’re the experts in their field, I'm going to rely on them," he said. "And I want them to feel comfortable in doing their job, and I'm going to help them get the resources that they need, but collectively as a team, that's how we're going to move East Lansing forward and servicing the residents of this community.”