Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) and residents expressed dismay Tuesday night over the stymied search for Evanston’s next city manager. 

The City Council last month selected John Fournier, assistant city administrator in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to take over as manager.

But after initially accepting the position, Fournier declined, publicly citing a dispute over relocation costs.

It was the second time in a row that the council’s search for a new manager had blown up — with a preferred choice candidate turning down the job.

Nieuwsma suggested at Tuesday’s ward meeting that a tumultuous City Council session, where Fournier’s contract was discussed, led to his reversal.

“What I think happened is [Fournier] came to the City Council meeting and saw a City Council that was not putting on its best face to welcome a new city manager,” he said.

“It was a rather lively, shall I say, City Council meeting, to use a euphemism, with some robust public comment, and I suspect that he had second thoughts,” Nieuwsma added.

Peter and Susan Barrett-Kelly.

Susan Barrett-Kelly, a 4th Ward resident, said she watched the meeting and felt Fournier’s final decision was understandable given the public comments.

“It’s embarrassing at some point, the public comments. I think there is a big difference between passionate, legitimate petition to address needs and name calling, accusations of malfeasance without any responsibility, ad hominem attacks,” she said. “I saw that Council meeting, and I wouldn’t want to work here.” 

Ray Friedman, who lives in the 2nd Ward, asked Nieuwsma about the executive session that led off the council meeting where the vote on Fournier’s contract was taken.

“You may recall that meeting started with an impromptu executive session. I am legally bound not to disclose what went on that executive session as much as it would help kind of fill in some blanks,” Nieuwsma explained. “It was a contentious meeting.”

Later, when Nieuwsma said he agreed with the 4th Ward residents who had said in an online survey that they preferred Fournier, Peter Kelly said, “We elect you to use your best judgement and to listen to us, but not to be an automaton that does what we want.” 

“I will say you elected the right guy because we came to the same conclusion,” said Neiuwsman, prompting attendees to laugh and clap.

Summing up where the search stands now, Nieuwsma said that “we have gone back and interviewed” a semi-finalist who previously withdrew from the selection process to see if “she’s still interested.”

He added, “We actually have two recruiters, on the hook to us for zero more dollars, to give us more names. And let’s see what more names we can come up with fairly soon.”

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