An administrator hired on an eleven-month contract after two predecessors were forced out could be forgiven for playing it safe. Not Milton Dohoney Jr. He’d barely arrived last fall when he tackled one of downtown’s most persistent headaches: Liberty Plaza.

Dohoney “heard pretty quickly that [Liberty Plaza] was a challenge in our community,” recalls councilmember Erica Briggs, “and that folks that lived or that worked adjacent to Liberty Plaza were experiencing increased physical violence in that space.” | Photo: J. Adrian Wylie

Designed in the 1970s by U-M landscape architecture profs, the park’s sunken plazas were intended to offer a quiet refuge from the busy streets above. What no one anticipated was how much that seclusion would appeal to homeless people and substance abusers. The city has fielded complaints about drinking, fighting, and other uncivil behavior at Liberty Plaza for decades.

“He heard pretty quickly that [the park] was a challenge in our community,” recalls Ward Five councilmember Erica Briggs, “and that folks that lived or that worked adjacent to Liberty Plaza were experiencing increased physical violence in that space.”

“So starting last November—and I’d only been here a month—I started convening about twenty people,” says Dohoney, a big, cheerful sixty-six-year-old who looks years younger. “We have councilmembers, we have business owners, we have downtown tenants, we’ve got various city departments—police and fire and community development … then developed a plan for programming the space with them.” 

The goal was not to drive out the homeless, but to ‘activate’ the park with events that made other downtown users comfortable going there.” City council approved $100,000 for “hopefully transforming a place that was seen as a problem.”

“This is the first year that the city administrator has asked city council for funding” for the park, says Briggs. Dohoney wanted it “to be able to make some small physical changes, but also to hire temporary staff and try to keep that space programmed and get more activity in the space.” 

“It has helped tremendously,” says interim police chief Aimee Metzer. “This summer we have probably had the least calls for service there in years.”


Without Stephen Postema I wouldn’t be here,” says Dohoney.

Last July, council voted to fire then-administrator Tom Crawford for what an investigator called “pervasive, inappropriate comments in the areas of minority hiring, race, and sexual orientation,” an action Crawford preempted by resigning. And Crawford’s departure came less than two years after a previous council majority fired his predecessor, Howard Lazarus.

“I dropped everything and scoured the country,” recalls Postema, the long-serving city attorney who’s since retired. “By September 3, I had a list of five candidates for the administration committee to review.”

Postema’s first impression was that Dohoney, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, who’d recently retired as assistant administrator in Phoenix, was “really knowledgeable, sort of unflappable, calm, and just very, very easy to talk to … I thought he could be really useful to assess the entire structure of governance in the city.

“We had a very honest conversation about the current state of things in the city,” says Postema. Dohoney took it in stride. “It was clear he had seen everything in city governance, and he was forward- looking and not backward-looking.”

Postema’s “love of the city was obvious,” Dohoney recalls, “but he was very candid about what has been going on.” Without the attorney’s “persistent and persuasive” efforts, he says, “I’m certain I’d be working in some other city.”

“He is Mr. Postema’s last gift,” says mayor Christopher Taylor: “a gentleman of intellect and ability and gravitas and good cheer and tremendous experience and leadership skills. He’s an incredibly valuable asset to our community.”


It was the pandemic that shook Dohoney loose from Phoenix, where he’d worked for seven years. “None of us were prepared for what Covid brought,” he recalls. “The mayor and the city manager asked me to lead the Covid response.

“We had more than 2,000 employees test positive. We had double-digit deaths. The very first person that died was a director that worked for the city of Phoenix. And we were doing everything from providing food service [to] doing Wi-Fi.” Meanwhile, “every night for 100 consecutive nights, there were hundreds if not thousands of people in the streets protesting the murder of George Floyd …

“I remember saying to my wife: ‘This is not sustainable.’ I needed a break,” he recalls. So once things began to calm down in February, 2021, he retired—but “always knew that I would be looking for another city.” 

When Dohoney started in Ann Arbor in October, his first charge from council was to stabilize the organization. He began, he says, by pledging to staff “that I was going to be transparent with them, that I was going to be accessible to them, that I was going to communicate with them about things that were going on in the organization—that we were going to determine a path forward together and embrace service excellence.”

And then he started looking for ways to make the city better. “My intention was to come here and function, not as a quote interim city administrator, but to function as the administrator, to handle the day-to-day affairs as I would if I were going to be here for 20 years,” Dohoney told the Michigan Daily in November.

His take-charge approach on issues like Liberty Plaza so impressed councilmembers that halfway through his interim contract, they voted unanimously to give him the job. “Making me permanent was strategic and necessary in order for us to add to the stability that the organization needs,” he says, “and city council agreed.” As one of two “at-will” employees—the city attorney is the other—he can quit, or city council can fire him, at any time. The promotion boosted his salary to a quarter-million dollars annually.


Dohoney says he’s found the city’s staff to be “very dedicated professionals. Many people that work here could be elsewhere making more money. So it’s not about money for them. They have chosen service … [and] want to be part of leading the city. They want to give their ideas.

“They want executive management to be comfortable with that, to embrace that kind of organization. It’s not a threat to us as leaders. It’s an affirmation to them that they are valued.”

In such an environment, “You’ve got to embrace innovation,” he adds. “You can’t be afraid to make a mistake.” 

The administrator defines his own role as “articulating a vision and then charting a pathway to execute the vision—and ensuring that every single person understands where we’re going and ensuring that they feel a part of that and seeing how their job fits in with it.

“And that calls for continuous communication. It calls for sharing leadership responsibility.”

Dohoney is “really actively trying to listen,” Briggs says. “But he’s also working with stakeholders to implement changes immediately.

“I was exceptionally impressed with some of those early conversations around Liberty Plaza, where you would have fifteen people on a Zoom call,” Briggs recalls. “Within an hour Dohoney was able to determine ‘What are the issues we’re seeing, how are we addressing them right now, what are some ideas for being able to move forward?’” 


I want people to have as much information as possible because it enables them to perform better,” Dohoney says. “I want there to be a relaxed environment where people enjoy coming to work here. And that means we have to trust them. We have to respect them. They have to know that we care about them as individuals, not just employees of Ann Arbor.

“When you’ve been in this business as long as I have, it’s not really about personalities … I don’t try to control things I can’t control. What is it they’re trying to communicate to me?

“I engage councilmembers in the way that they want to be engaged,” he says. “I’m also working to get us to manage the agenda flow for council meetings. We don’t necessarily have to go to one and two o’clock in the morning, unless there’s some compelling reason for that.” The longest meeting this summer was under four hours, down from seven last year.

Dohoney describes these changes as “practical—but they enable us to deliver a higher level of service to the public that we’re here to serve and also enables the workforce to feel better about the organization.” So far, he says, the innovations have been “fairly well received within the organization, [and] received very well by council.” 

He characterizes his relationship with Mayor Taylor as “extraordinarily positive. We communicate a lot. I’m able to be completely frank with him about what I’m thinking, where I’m going.

“I remember the very first time I met him. He made a pledge to me that he would be fully supportive of me doing my job. He said ‘I won’t be trying to be the city administrator. That’s what we’re hiring you for. I know what my role is as the mayor. We want a seasoned administrator, and you will be able to do that with my full support.’ And he has kept his word.”


I am continually astonished by his willingness to tackle the problems that have seemed unresolvable,” says Ward One councilmember Lisa Disch. As an example, she points to the Argo Cascades, the man-made spillway around the dam on the Huron River that’s great for tubing.

“We have had unanticipated success with the Cascades, but that success has brought with it a number of negative externalities for the neighborhood. The facility was never intended to accommodate the number of patrons that we get who drive there. So the parking is inadequate, and there is an overflow in the neighborhood that exceeds inconvenience.”

First, she says, Dohoney recognized it as a “problem that needs attention.” Then he “convened a multidepartment working group with the police department, community standards, and parks through the public services [division] to figure out what levers we have.”

“We’re in conversation now,” Disch continues in an August interview. “And we are working on what we can do to strengthen enforcement and possibly changes to the operation itself that will help mitigate some of these effects.”

A U-M professor of political science, Disch says Dohoney “has skills that I don’t read about in my books. He is an inspiring and no-nonsense spokesperson and a brilliant administrator. He’s a leader.” 

Another focus is approving the appearance of downtown, or as he calls it, “the city’s living room.” The process “has to start with engagement,” Dohoney says. “That’s what this summer is dedicated toward.

“We need to determine where improvements can be made with regards to trash, with regards to alleys, with regards to public restroom facilities,” he says. “And so I’m hoping we will have made some improvements in those areas a couple of years from now.”

Though he brings issues to council’s attention, Dohoney “does not have a policy agenda,” says Disch. “He makes that very clear: We set the policy, he will execute it.” As importantly, the First Ward rep says, she has “yet to encounter a situation where I have brought him a problem and he says, ‘that’s a problem, but it’s really outside the scope of what the city can do.’ He says, ‘I think I can help facilitate a conversation around that.’”

“I’ll give you an example of something that’s not the norm, but it’s necessary,” Dohoney says. “We’ve got a development that’s going to be constructed near the Detroit Street Filling Station. In addition to the busy restaurant, “it potentially impacts the Farmers Market and the traffic in and around that area. So I have personally been facilitating meetings between the
developer, the city, the Filling Station ownership, [and] the management of the Farmers Market” to minimize problems during construction.


In the course of shifting from interim to permanent status, we conducted a review which involved staff engagement,” Taylor recalls. “Staff feels like they’re in great hands.” 

Assistant city administrator John Fournier is one. Dohoney is “very good at shaping the directives [from council] into actionable work plans for the staff and to keeping people motivated to achieve them,” he says. “And that’s really the art of being a city manager: bridging your elected leadership and your professional staff leadership and keeping everybody moving in one direction.” 

“He’s a great boss, and he’s a great person,’ agrees fire chief Mike Kennedy. “You can tell he cares about you as an employee. You can tell he cares about how we’re doing with the department [and] is very, very supportive but very much allows the bandwidth for me to run the organization. And I couldn’t ask anything more than that.”

Like everyone, Kennedy describes Dohoney as “incredibly” calm. “I’ve yet to see him not calm.” And the fire chief says the administrator “absolutely” has an open mind.

“There has not even been a hint of, and I don’t even like using the word, arrogance.” Like Fournier, the fire chief pays Dohoney the ultimate compliment: “I would be more than happy if he can be my boss for the rest of my career here.” 

“I’m gonna miss his leadership,” says former police chief Mike Cox, who just left to run Boston’s department. “In the short period of time that [he’s] been here, I’ve come to grow fond of how he manages.”

Even a councilmember who often opposes Taylor approves of Dohoney. From the first time they met, says retiring Ward Two rep Kathy Griswold, “I thought he was a perfect fit.” While she hasn’t asked staff officially, she says, “a few people” have told her “Milton’s great … He just knows how to say the right thing and defuse any tension.”


Looking ahead, Dohoney thinks Ann Arbor’s biggest challenge will be managing its growth. “The city will need to have another conversation around its comfort level with density,” he says.

“We’re not gonna try to force development, like some communities. It’s not that every parcel has to have tall, vertical construction. But if you’re gonna have density, you’re talking vertical, you’re not talking horizontal.”

Does he expect to be around for those conversations? His time here so far has been “very rewarding,” Doheny replies. “And I’m very encouraged about where we’re going.”