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Local News

Joliet city manager office up for grabs again after Jones resigns

Interim City Manager Steve Jones
Interim City Manager Steve Jones

Another city manager is leaving.

Interim City Manager Steve Jones told the City Council on Tuesday that he is resigning effective Aug. 7, which will make him the fourth person to leave the job unexpectedly in a little over three years.

Jones leaves as the city is getting increasing pressure over the death of Eric Lurry after an arrest in January and while Joliet is just starting a search to find its first regular city manager since October 2018.

But the turmoil in the city manager office has come with months of infighting at City Hall and what seems to be a never-ending stream of controversies that often involve the mayor and the police department.

Jones pointed to three of them in a resignation letter that referred to "political turmoil and false narratives" that he said are taking a "tremendous toll on the professionals who run this city on a daily basis."

Jones said in the letter that his decision to leave "is based upon the increasingly problematic ethical environment that exists in the current administration. Particularly, the events of Fiesta (en) la Calle last fall, the events at the May 31 protests and the current perpetuation of a false narrative regarding an unfortunate death of an arrestee have led me to understand this is a continuing pattern that will not change."

Jones would not comment when contacted about the reasons for his resignation other than to say he made the decision over the Fourth of July weekend.

The letter was handed to council members and the mayor in a closed session at the end of a meeting Tuesday in which several members of Lurry's family criticized Jones and said he should be fired.

Mayor Bob O'Dekirk joined in the criticism, saying Jones' initially opposed his efforts to bring video from the Lurry case to the council to view in closed session. O'Dekirk highlighted the same criticism In a letter to the Illinois Attorney General's Office asking for a review of the Lurry matter.

The letter was signed by three council members and not by the other five, reflecting a division that has been in place since the mayor a year ago was unable to win approval in his attempt to promote then-interim City Manager Marty Shanahan to the job on a permanent basis.

O'Dekirk said he believes the city will be able to hire another interim city manager from city staff.

"There have been discussions internally about replacing Mr. Jones for a number of reasons," O'Dekirk said.

The mayor has said publicly that he wanted Jones removed from the job, objecting to a private contract under which he is working after retiring as a city employee.

O'Dekirk said he and Councilman Pat Mudron "for some time now" have been talking to city employees who might step in as the next interim city manager. That person would become the third person to hold the job on an interim basis since June 2019.

The Lurry case is the most recent controversy to embroil City Hall.

Three outside agencies that have reviewed the case have exonerated the police officers on the scene, saying Lurry died of intoxication from a combination of fentanyl, heroine and cocaine. Police said he concealed the drugs in his mouth during the course of an arrest at the scene of a drug deal.

But Lurry's family and others have come to council meetings and held protests calling for the arrest of the two officers, saying they caused his death.

The May 31 incident mentioned in Jones' letter refers to a Black Lives Matter demonstration in which O'Dekirk got in a scuffle with two protesters while joining police in ending the protest. That incident is being investigated by state police, and charges initially brought against the two protesters have been dropped.

The Fiesta en la Calle matter concerned O'Dekirk's allegations that a police sergeant working security at the downtown street festival was drunk. Police Chief Al Roechner and Sgt. Lindsey Heavener that night went to a hospital for tests to demonstrate there was no alcohol in Heavener's system. Heavener has since retired from the police department.

Jones was brought onto the job in June 2019 after a divided City Council voted to remove Shanahan, who had been serving as interim city manager since October.

Shanahan had taken over after City Manager David Hales, who left after less than a year on the job with a separation agreement negotiated with the city.

Hales replaced Jim Hock, who retired in May 2017 after giving one month's notice he was leaving. Shanahan had served on an interim basis after Hock left but was not seeking the job at the time.

Jones, who previously served as deputy city manager, was unwilling to become city manager even on an interim basis and urged council members to fill the job soon. He took the position with the understanding that he would retire in February but would stay longer under a contractual arrangement if needed.

As the council failed to hire a new city manager, Jones told them he would be willing to stay until April 2021 when the next council elections are held, a reflection of the political power struggle of the city manager's office.

Joliet is legally structured as a city manager form of government, which gives the city manager, not the mayor, control over daily operations and nearly all hiring and firing of employees. The city council hires and fires the city manager with the mayor being just one vote in the decision.

Mudron said he, too, believes another interim city manager can be found on staff while Joliet looks for a permanent city manager. But he said he has talked with potential candidates with an understanding of the instability of the position.

"I ask them how close to retirement they are," Mudron said.

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