NEW BUFFALO — The New Buffalo City Council agreed during a March 22 special meeting to begin negotiations to make Darwin Watson the community’s next city manager.
He served as City Manager of Benton Harbor from February 2014 to July 2019, having worked his way up through the ranks from being a water plant operator for the City of Benton Harbor to become city manager there for five years.
Watson introduced himself as a “lifelong resident of Southwest Michigan” who has two children, is a graduate of Coloma High School and Grand Valley State University, and worked for the City of Benton Harbor for 23-plus years.
“I am a lifelong city government person in the fact that my father worked for the City of Benton Harbor starting in 1961 and retired as the police chief. My brother subsequently … worked for the City of Benton Harbor, He now works for the ATF,” he said. “I think we are the only family to have had each one of us serve in the capacity of city manger at some time during our career.”
Watson also was Public Works & Utility Services Director/Chief of Staff for the City of Benton Harbor in July and August 2019; and Public Works & Utility Services Director/Assistant City Manager for Benton Harbor from March 2008 to February 2014. Watson most recently worked as a consultant for Prairie Real Estate Group, Benton Harbor.
Watson noted that he is “very well-connected” with people in county, state and the federal government.
He said New Buffalo has a lot of penitential for development and growth.
In response to a question about his experience in procuring grants, bonds and alternate sources of funding for projects, Watson said he has been involved in all of those areas, adding that Benton Harbor did a bond issuance for a water plant upgrade and infrastructure improvements around the city “to the tune of $22 million.”
Watson said he feels it’s important for a city manager to be out in the public and be accessible to the community.
He later said Southwest Michigan is home and his desire is “to make this corner of the world the best it can be.”
The City Council also interviewed two other finalists during the March 22 special meeting – Martin Shanahan (a former Corporation Counsel and Interim City Manager for Joliet, Ill.) and Jeffrey Sheridan (City Manager for Webster, Ind., in 2019 and 2021 with other experience including Town Manager for Lowell, Ind., 2016-2019, and Chief Executive Officer for the Tipton County Economic Development Organization, 2013-2016).
Sheridan said during his interview that he would require greater compensation than the city is offering.
The finalists were chosen by a hiring team of Mayor John Humphrey, City Council member Mark Robertson, city Treasurer Kate Vyskocil and Police Chief (currently serving as Interim City Manager) Rich Killips.
New Buffalo City Manager David Richards passed away on Dec. 12, 2020.
Several City Council members said it was a tough choice between Watson and Shanahan.
Council member Lou O’Donnell IV said the fact that Watson has been in Berrien County for a long time and “can hit the ground running” for a smooth transition, and has contacts throughout the state.
Robertson noted that a majority of the hiring team had recommended Watson, adding that he called a lot of the references for Watson and said comments ranged from “he’s a good infrastructure man” and “he stabilized the town” to “very capable” and “battle-tested.”
After a 5-0 vote in favor of hiring Darwin Watson as the next city manager of New Buffalo pending a background check and salary negotiations, the council unanimously agreed to move to Shanahan as a back-up if negotiations with Watson don’t work out.
Also on March 22, the City Council (at the request of the New Buffalo Shoreline Alliance) agreed to send the following letter to The Honorable R.D. Vance Stewart, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army For Civil Works:
Dear Assistant Secretary James:
On behalf of the City of New Buffalo, Michigan, I want to thank you for your positive interest and engagement in the resolution of the direct and devastating erosion to the beaches south of the New Buffalo Harbor.
We are very anxious to partner on a short term and permanent solution to the decades-long shoreline erosion problem that has direct correlation to our break walls constructed by the Corps. We are also asking for your sincere commitment to the community that you and your team will personally work with us on a permanent solution to resolve the erosion problems caused by the Corps New Buffalo Harbor.
Accordingly, in an effort to move forward with a positive and responsibility for the New Buffalo Harbor with the shoreline erosion issues from the District to the Chicago District. As you know, the New Buffalo Harbor
productive partnership with you and the Corps of Engineers, we are requesting that you consider the transfer of
Detroit was constructed by the Chicago District and completed in 1975. We feel the Chicago District has the historical knowledge and expertise to move forward in developing the appropriate permanent solution to
the shoreline erosion problem. We look forward to working with you and whichever district can best deal with our needs, to partner a positive solution for this devastating erosion problem which is threatening the health and safety of our community. We are also requesting your commitment to working with us and the community to find the permanent and equitable solution to the erosion problems that our community constantly deals with.
We look forward to your response and the partnership.
Sincerely,Mayor, John Humphrey
City Manager, Rich Killips
In other March 22 business, the New Buffalo City Council:
Accepted reconstruction bids to rebuild the City Marina after a fire last year…. for three components (General Construction, Electrical, and HVAC) as follows: McGuires Construction for $19,554.00; Mead and White electrical for $20,853.00; and City Plumbing and Mechanical for $32,926. Most of the cost is expected to be reimbursed or paid directly to vendors by MMRMA, the city’s insurance company.
Decided to take no action on a proposal to apply and commit $10,000 in matching funds for a $50,000 Rural Development Block Grant to improve the South Whittaker Street Business Corridor. Parking is always a problem in the City and the businesses to improve parking in in the 400 block to make business development more sustainable.