Buchanan city manager resigns

Published 10:09 am Thursday, November 30, 2023

BUCHANAN — After a month of turmoil inside Buchanan city government, City Manager Benjamin Eldridge has resigned and City Commissioners are left searching for a new person to lead city government. Whoever is hired will be the city’s fifth city manager since 2020. 

Eldridge talked for nearly an hour at Wednesday’s special City Commission meeting called to decide his future. He had been the city manager since late June and had been on paid suspension since early November when city staff delivered a document with over 40 grievances to Mayor Sean Denison. 

Wednesday, Eldridge took time to address and answer most of the complaints and grievances against him. He described his suspension and all that has gone on as a “circus” and called the grievances in large part “smear tactics”, subjective, and reports of incidents taken out of context.  

For example, he denied claims made by staff that they felt unsupported, that he didn’t communicate with them, that female employees felt uncomfortable with his body language, that he took credit for others’ work, that he talked of abolishing the DPW union and that he went out and did the work of union members. 

“The mayor said I had to be suspended so I wouldn’t retaliate against employees,” he said. “That’s the attitude of the city staff. If they don’t like something, they retaliate and get rid of the person. The turnover at city hall is emblematic of the problems the city has … I’m standing here because I trusted city employees and trusted the wrong people.” 

“All those who complained about me are all sitting cozy in their positions and I’m here defending myself,” he added. “I don’t feel like I can go on being part of this administration. I don’t want to be part of what I feel is a toxic environment.” 

He spoke several times over his nearly hourlong remarks about how he had grown to love Buchanan during his time here, had made a lot of friendships and had wanted to move the city forward. “I feel most sorry for the residents of Buchanan, they continue to carry the burden of high taxes and high utility bills,” he said. 

He said after the meeting that he believes the basis of the complaints and grievances against him goes back to his cost cutting and belt tightening efforts. He noted that the city had a budget deficit last year and will this year and could face a state takeover if there’s also a deficit in the 2024-25 year. 

Cost cutting measures he put in place ranged from cutting overtime and asking staff to punch time cards in and out to hiring freezes and asking staff to clean their offices after getting rid of the cleaning service for city hall. “We had $43,000 in overtime one month and I said no more,” he said. 

“It is like the wild, wild west when it comes to the city’s employees, there’s only chaos,” he added. “I was trying to bring order and not have chaos. Nobody likes change but sometimes it’s necessary. I said we needed to go without now so we would all be here a year from now.” 

Eldridge said he had decided to resign shortly after he was suspended in early November and really couldn’t see a way he could come back to work for the city. “I didn’t see any circumstance where I could stay, I knew I wasn’t going to come back,” he said. 

There was again a packed house in the commission chambers at city hall with people largely in support of Eldridge. Former County Commissioner Don Ryman warned city commissioners that the city is becoming “radioactive”. Former Berrien County Record editor Brenda Beadenkopf said the commission was too busy “killing the messenger” instead of listening to his message. 

For their part, four of five city commissioners had little to say about Eldridge’s resignation beyond voting for accepting it and against a motion to not accept it. Denison again did defend his actions in suspending Eldridge when he received the list of grievances and complaints. 

City Commissioner Dan Vigansky voted for not accepting the resignation and against accepting it. He was outspoken in his criticism of Denison and the rest of the commission. He said Eldridge had been the victim of a character assassination and the rest of the commission were intent on firing him if he hadn’t resigned.  

“You really are a sorry sort of people, I’m sorry to have any relationship with any of you,” he told fellow commissioners. 

Vigansky once more denied “leaking” the grievance/complaint information, he said he gave it to Eldridge who he thought had a right to know. He said Denison failed to follow proper procedure and overstepped his authority. “You followed the mutineers and hung the captain,” he said. 

As for what’s next for the city, a clarity hearing on wording submitted to recall Denison for suspending Eldridge is set for Monday, Dec. 4 at 1 p.m. at the St. Joseph courthouse and Vigansky faces a public censure hearing for the alleged “leaking” and other complaints on Monday, Dec. 11 at 5:30 p.m. prior to that night’s city commission meeting.