Thornton out of running for Esky post

Jeff Thornton, of Negaunee, at left, shakes hands with Escanaba Mayor Marc Tall as Councilmember Michael Sattem looks on at a meeting in late March in Escanaba. Thornton, the former Negaunee city manager, is no longer in the running for the city manager position in Escanaba due to an undisclosed background issue. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Jenny Lancour)

ESCANABA — Escanaba will repost the city manager position, city council decided at its regular meeting Thursday.

Earlier this week, the city’s negotiating team recommended to no longer consider Jeff Thornton for the job because of an undisclosed background issue.

After reviewing 52 applications and interviewing three candidates on March 22, council chose Thornton, 50, of Negaunee, to replace City Manager Jim O’Toole. O’Toole is retiring on July 3 after a 29-year career with the city, including 10 years as manager.

Council’s unanimous vote to hire Thornton was dependent on a background check and a contract agreement, which were both in the works following council’s decision to hire him. In the meantime, Thornton was also attending council meetings, budget sessions and other city events.

The city’s negotiating team — made up of Mayor Marc Tall, Mayor Pro Tem Ron Beauchamp and City Attorney Ralph “B.K.” Peterson — had met with Thornton twice during the past month while the city looked into his background.

On Tuesday, the negotiating team announced in a press release that a recommendation would be made to council on Thursday to remove Thornton from further consideration for the city manager position.

Peterson told the Daily Press on Wednesday the recommendation was based on Thornton’s background check, which Tall confirmed following Thursday’s meeting, choosing not to provide any details except that he was made aware of an issue last Friday.

Tall also stated, as a result of the background check on Thornton, the negotiating team “decided that he was not the right man” for the city manager job in Escanaba.

Prior to council deciding Thursday to repost the position, O’Toole read out loud a letter of apology from Thornton that was emailed to Tall and O’Toole shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday.

The letter stated: “I wanted to send you and the council my most sincere apologies for giving you cause to reconsider my appropriateness for the position of city manager.”

Because council had not yet made a decision on the negotiating team’s recommendation at the time Thornton sent the email, he stated he was stepping down from being considered for the job so the city could move forward with the hiring process as soon as possible.

“…in the spirit of the city moving forward in a positive direction, I am removing myself from any further consideration which should make it easier for the council to proceed with the next candidate, without much controversy, in an expeditious manner.”

Thornton’s letter concluded, “Again, I am sorry and apologize for any harm that I have caused you, the city, and my family.”

Thornton did praise the city in his email, saying, “…my interaction within the community for the last several months has clearly shown what a wonderful community Escanaba is and that it is my great loss not being a part of it.”

Thornton had most recently been employed as Negaunee’s city manager, a position he held beginning in 2011 until March 9, 2017, after he and the Negaunee City Council had reached a mutual separation agreement in a 4-2 vote following his annual evaluation on Feb. 20.

Tall said following Thursday’s Escanaba City Council meeting that he is hopeful a new city manager will be hired prior to O’Toole retiring in two months.

O’Toole declined to comment when asked if he would consider postponing his retirement, if necessary, until a new city manager was appointed.

The city manager job will be posted again beginning today. Candidates who previously applied for the job will have opportunity to resubmit their applications.

Prior to council deciding to repost the position, council member Ralph Blasier suggested the job be offered to council’s second choice following the public interviews of final three candidates held on March 21. Blasier noted that Darcy Long of Amery, Wis., was being interviewed next week for the Gladstone city manager vacancy.

Council agreed that Long, and other previous applicants, would be notified of the reposting of the Escanaba manager position.