Evanston City Council members approved the appointment of Ann Arbor Assistant City Administrator John Fournier as the next City Manager at the Monday, May 23, City Council meeting, bringing to a close a bruising process to find a new city leader.
The vote was 9-1, meeting the seven-vote minimum needed under Council rules to appoint a City Manager. Council members stood and audience members applauded following the vote.
“You know, I want to express my very, very sincere appreciation and gratitude for this appointment and I come to you humbly with a lot of hope and a lot of ambition to work with each of you to make sure that this City Council is successful,” Fournier said when Mayor Daniel Biss invited him to say a few words after the vote.
“This is a democracy. This is a big ‘D’ democracy,” he said. “It’s important for us to be engaged in voices of community and the work that happens in this city hall.”
Credentials were key
“I was really looking for someone with the experience that demonstrated the ability to manage a city like Evanston with a $360 million budget and 800 employees,” said Council member Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward. “It’s really a complex organization and I was really looking for someone who had demonstrated hands-on experience in that regard. Certainly, being Assistant City Manager in Ann Arbor obviously provided that kind of hands-on experience with a large staff and so I think that’s going to be standing us in good stead.”
Council member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, also cited experience as a factor in Fournier’s favor. “Throughout the process it was clear to me that John not only read through our budget but also has a deep understanding of how municipal budgets are supposed to be run. And I was incredibly impressed by that,” Braithwaite said.
“Within the budget, there are important nuances in terms of how we monitor our federal grants. He also has extensive experience with union and labor negotiations which I think is very critical to our operations.”
Another plus, Braithwaite said, was Fournier’s experience working with town-gown issues in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan. “He has a great deal of experience in working with college towns and I think that that‘s very vital.”
Local activist groups lobbied for the selection of Snapper Poche, the other finalist, who is Program Director for the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in Cambridge, try here Mass. Supporters gave Poche higher marks in his interviews at a virtual Town Hall meeting as well as with stakeholders and staff on transparency and equity issues.
Some council members who voted in favor of Fournier did so after voicing concerns. But only Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, actually voted against the appointment.
“I do feel that Mr. Fournier has a solid understanding of municipalities,” Kelly said. “I share concerns that we’ve heard from much of our community … around equity, and other concerns have been expressed not only this evening but throughout. I’m concerned that the background that we’ve all been able to see does not represent or will not lead us in the kind of change that the community would like to see.”
Under the approved employment agreement, Fournier will receive a base salary of $248,000 prorated from his start date, which is to be no later than July 18. The city will also assist in his relocation, providing a loan of $225,000 toward the purchase of a home in Evanston.
This search was the second one the Council had undertaken. Last year’s ended when the top candidate accepted a job elsewhere. In 2021, City Manager Erika Storlie resigned after less than year in the job.
Two very different candidates
Biss, one of the nine votes in support, called the selection “a really important moment.” But he also addressed the concerns raised by some residents about Council deliberations not being transparent.
“I fear there might be some cynicism out there,” the mayor said, “but I don’t think it’s revealing too much about our executive sessions to say we talk a lot about the input we got from the public. It really weighs heavily on our thinking about these issues.”
Biss said that the staff’s input, which was very detailed and included careful evaluations, was seriously weighed. “I think one of the indications that it was a successful search is that we had two really impressive finalists.”
“The search got difficult because those two really impressive, highly qualified people were really different,” he said. “So it wasn’t a question of comparing two kind of very similar options – maybe, maybe on average, people liked them equally, almost, but their strengths were really, really different.
“[Fournier], from literally the first minute he walked in to interview in the first round was just very, very, very clearly knowledgeable and concise and organized in his mind,” Biss continued. “And I think that all of us up here have so much that we want to do – we have clarity about where we want to go but we always haven’t necessarily always been successful in shaping the organization to go that way.
“And I think ultimately that level of knowledge and clarity and experience and specificity about how to get from point A to point B was just something that this Council was simply not prepared to walk away from.”
Fournier, who had been sitting in the audience with his wife, Chelsea Wentworth, a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University, said he looked forward to working with Evanston’s tremendously talented staff.
He promised he would be “hitting the ground running and working with all of you and staff and the community to achieve your very ambitious goals.”
Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism. More by Bob Seidenberg
Join the Conversation
I applaud the vote. It seems to me that it is the council’s job to define our equity policies, and the manager’s job to implement them. I am glad that we have the better implementer in the job.