Detroit Tries Another CFO

After short-lived finance chief Bonsall talked himself out of a job, the city turns to someone with a reputation as a municipal financial whiz.
David McCannNovember 25, 2013

After bringing in a hard-nosed corporate finance expert to rescue it from possible financial Armageddon, only to see the new CFO implode with ill-advised alleged comments, the city of Detroit has found an alternative. This time it’s reached out to someone with municipal finance experience: John Hill, who served as CEO of Washington, D.C.’s Federal City Counsel from 2004 to 2012.

Perhaps more importantly for the role he’ll be playing in Detroit, Hill was executive director of the D.C. Financial Control Board from 1995 to 1999, helping the nation’s capital recover from dire financial straits. He worked with control board members appointed by President Bill Clinton to restructure the district’s financial and operational management systems.

Hill, though, may also be expected to bring some corporate rigor to the post. In his career he’s been the CEO of In2Books Inc.; a partner with Andersen LLP, where he was in charge of state and local consulting for North America; a board of directors and audit committee member of Highland Hospitality Corp.; a director of Marriott’s internal audit division; and an auditor for Coopers & Lybrand and Price Waterhouse.

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He replaces James Bonsall, a former partner with Alix Partners who had a long history of working on corporate turnarounds. Bonsall was hired amid fanfare in early August, but less than three months later he resigned under pressure after city treasurer Cheryl Johnson accused him of creating a hostile work environment. According to Johnson, Bonsall, who was planning to participate with other city employees in an annual neighborhood patrol night, asked at a Sept. 18 meeting whether three police officers could ride with him and said, “Can I shoot someone in a hoodie?” Some took that as a reference to slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

Johnson was demoted from city finance director and treasurer to just treasurer on Oct. 7. She charged that the demotion was because of her accusations that Bonsall created a hostile work environment and subjected city workers to “ethnic harassment.”

Bonsall had referred to himself as a “pit bull” in an August interview with CFO.

Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy protection on July 18, has an accumulated long-term debt of $18 billion and more than $9 billion of liabilities on its balance sheet.