Szakacs retires as police chief, focuses on city manager role

EVART — Following through with a decision made months ago to keep the Evart Police Department solvent, former Police Chief Zack Szakacs retired from his role on Jan. 1. Szakacs, who has served in the role for six years and has also served as city manager for three years, announced he would retire as police chief in May when the city council was discussing options to consolidate its police department. Szakacs’ retirement saved the city around $18,000 and talks of consolidation were dismissed. “I don’t think it has really sunk in yet,” said Szakacs, 54, on leaving his more than 23-year career in law enforcement. “Was it something I really wanted to do at this age? No. But I’m still here and I can concentrate on the city’s future. We have all these hurdles with revenue and I can dedicate more time to that.” He remembers his beginnings with the department fondly. “I recall the day when Roger Elkins (former city manager) called me and offered me the position,” Szakacs said. “I was so happy to move to Evart and I’ll still be in Evart, but just in the role of city manager.” With the extra time he has to devote to the city manager’s position, Szakacs plans to focus on researching personal property tax issues and look for grants to maintain and improve city services. He also hopes to keep a closer eye on the city’s employees and departments. “I’ve warned my department heads that I want the right people on the bus. I’m going to have the opportunity to really see if (employees) are being effective for the city,” Szakacs said. “I’m separating myself from worrying about the officers and department 24-7. In that perspective, it takes some stress off and I can concentrate more on the city side of it and be truly the city manager.” While Szakacs transitions out of “protection-mode” and into full-time city administrator, he is not leaving the chief’s position in limbo. Former deputy cheif Kendra Backing was selected to take the helm of the department. Backing began learning the ropes from Szakacs, who now works just a few blocks away at the Evart City Hall. “It’s going well and I’m very excited about the position,” said Backing, who is excited to make use of her degree in public administration. “I’ve got some big shoes to fill, but I’m up to the challenge.” For the next few weeks, Szakacs will continue to help Backing as she settles in to the administrative role. She will also attend a police chief leadership training seminar in March in Oakland County. “I’m going to still mentor her over the phone. It’s time for her to swim, but I’m not going to let her drown,” Szakacs said. “It’s her role now. She deserves it.” In the process of handing over his command to Backing, Szakacs recalled the changes that occurred during his time in the department. While in charge of the station, he worked to improve the department by instituting a clear chain of command, hiring educated officers, placing high priority on continued training and increasing uniformity in the department. “I think Zack did a good job building the department up. I think one of my main responsibilities is maintaining that,” Backing said. “Everybody has their training wishlists and I want to make sure they can get those (trainings.)” The transition in leadership accompanies a season of change in the four-man department. K-9 Officer John Beam is taking on a sergeant role while Officer Michelle Gebbon now handles Backing’s former duties of case follow-up and investigation. Newly-hired Officer Lorne Juday is in the process of completing field training while he acclimates to the area. “It’s an interesting time for our department. There are a lot of transitions going on right now, but every thing’s falling into place very nicely,” Backing said. She is confident her team will carry on the legacy Szakacs built. “Zack always said it’s all about having the right people on the bus and I believe we have it,” Backing said. “We’ve got some great people on the team.” Despite the retirement, Szakacs still is a licensed police officer and will remain on the department’s roster to cover vacations, gaps in coverage or assist when backup is needed. “I think it’s going to be nice to have him available in that capacity,” Backing said. “Zack has really helped us in our careers. He’s somebody that I think every one of us would say we’ll never forget, because you never forget the people who help you so much.” Leaving as the leader of the department, Szakacs said he is considering options for a continued future in an administrative position in law enforcement. “I’d like to stick with the current council and work as the city manager for three more years,” Szakacs said. “Then I would consider running for sheriff after Jim Crawford retires.”