Garden City Fires Gay City Manager

By Crystal A. Proxmire

GARDEN CITY -

One afternoon in 1998 Darwin Parks McClary was sitting in his new office as the city manager of Richmond, MI. As McClary recalled, a city council member walked in and stuck out his hand for an introduction. "I hope you don't mind, but I'm an openly gay councilperson," the official told him.

Without thinking, McClary returned the introduction. "Well, I am a not-so-openly-gay city manager, and I look forward to working with you."

The councilperson told others, and it wasn't long before the closet door was wide open. "Once I came out in Richmond, I decided I would never go back. I'm proud of who I am and I think it's important for young people to know they have leaders who are in the LGBT community in leadership positions," he said.

Since then McClary has had a career full of positive experiences, marred only by the occasional hurtfulness of bigotry. Most recently, McClary was released from his city manager position in Garden City at the urging of a small group of residents with money, political influence and a conservative agenda. McClary makes it clear that his sexual orientation was not their only complaint, and that the people of Garden City are "incredibly welcoming and accepting" of LGBT people. Yet when those who wanted him removed used homophobia as one of their weapons, it was a reminder of the obstacles that gay people still face in society.

In 2011, Garden City faced the same economic problems that many cities in Michigan struggle with, and city leaders pushed for a millage. A 12 mil increase was voted down by the public and economic consequences were hard for some residents to swallow. "We instituted a street light assessment, a rubbish collection assessment, restructuring of city hall where we laid off 11 city employees. To put it in perspective, we had a staff of 174 full time positions in 2001, down to 99 in 2011. We were operating with half the staffing as before and still maintaining most of the services, but the changes did not sit well," he explained.

The most vocal residents began attending meetings regularly and belittling McClary at every chance they got. "More than anything they were anti-tax. But it was some of the more affluent citizens. It amazes me that people who are struggling to make ends meet are the ones who step up to the plate and pay more to make their community work, and those that can afford to do it don't want to help.

"The anti-tax people would use other wedge issues to defame me, or destroy my credibility. ...They would call me 'the drive-by city manager' at the city council meetings. One that was homophobic and racist made a comment that he thought I violated a law and said I should go to jail, but that I would probably like it."

On Aug. 27, McClary was blindsided at a city council meeting with a motion to have him suspended, which passed 4-3. Then in September, despite having over 100 residents turn out to support him, McClary was terminated, with a 4-3 vote of council to support it.

"The city manager is an at-will employee. They don't need any reason to terminate a city manager. There was a lot of concern. People believed this was a wrongful termination. But in Michigan the law does not work that way. And even if it did, it would be the taxpayers who would have to pay for it, and that's not fair." He noted that Garden City residents are still paying on a $15 million judgment from a 2003 dispute with a contractor, and is in general still struggling financially.

"Garden City is a community in transition. In many ways it is transitioning for the better. There is a lot of hope that the community can embrace diversity and drive the economy. I wasn't the only LGBT employee there. This is a small, vocal minority and they don't speak for Garden City.... Throughout all of it [the name-calling], I was getting calls from citizens saying to keep doing what I'm doing. I'd have straight guys calling me on the phone saying 'I'm a straight guy, but I have a brother or sister who is gay and those people don't speak for me.'

"I think it bothered other people, citizens, more than it bothered me. The citizens of Garden City weren't used to that type of vitriol. I've worked for the public before so I know how it can be. I'd listen and take it in strides. I'm not going to get deterred from what I need to do."

McClary has dusted off his real estate license and is keeping his eyes open for other city manager opportunities, ideally in southeast Michigan. He lives in Ferndale, a community he says attracted him because of the diversity. "I love it here. No matter who you are you should feel comfortable in Ferndale." Plus it's a good home base for his 19-year-old son who just left to serve in the Marines. Having his son grown up now gives him less reason to rush into a new position. "I'm fine," he said about his temporary break from the 9 to 5.

From 1998 to 2004 he was city manager in Richmond. From 2004-2006 he was hired by the state to help with the financial situation in Highland Park. From 2006 he was city manager in Eastpointe. In April 2011 he took the position in Garden City. He said that in all those years, his orientation was rarely mentioned, although there was one disappointing incident earlier this decade. "I had put in my resume for a city manager position, I don't want to say where, but I was one of the finalists. They scheduled me for an interview. Then they called me back to cancel. The person I talked to was honest with me and said that a council member had googled me and found out I was gay." He said that ultimately it was a good thing because he didn't want to work at a place where who he was would be a problem.

A Detroit News interview about his family also caused a stir, not in Richmond, but among fellow city managers.

"In the city manager profession we pride ourselves on diversity. In our degree programs that's something that's instilled in us. When I came out professionally, the Detroit News did a story on my family. I knew this was going to go beyond my office so I put out an email on ListServe letting them know first. I was surprised by some of the comments. 'Why do we have to talk about this?' 'Why can't you keep it to yourself?' This was the most hurtful. I always thought my colleagues in the city manager profession were more tolerant than that."

McClary said he loves city manager work. "No two days are alike. There are different issues every day. I love working with the citizens. That's probably the most enjoyable part - working with different people, playing a small part in shaping the future of a community. It's exciting to know that you are helping to influence the lives of citizens."

As far as being gay goes, his identity is becoming more important as he looks at his career situation. "I have thought about the issue of being fired. We need to concentrate work on Elliot Larsen [Michigan's civil rights legislation]. We need to get that [anti-marriage] constitutional amendment repealed. These things affect us all. Discrimination in the workplace affects all of us. ...As time goes by I evolve in that. It's not good enough to say 'I'm gay' and hope that has a positive effect on the youth of the LGBT community. You have to back it up."

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