The sudden ouster of Golden Valley’s longtime public works director has caught many in the city by surprise and stirred debate about the actions of the city manager.

Jeannine Clancy, who had been public works director for 15 years, last week was told that her position was being eliminated and that she was losing her job immediately, according to her attorney, Andrew Parker. He said she was given 20 minutes to clean out her office.

In an e-mail to the Star Tribune, Clancy said she was “shocked by the elimination of my position by the City Manager.” She said she “would have liked to have continued my service to the City for many years to come.”

City Manager Tom Burt, who has the power to hire and fire city employees, said Clancy’s layoff was linked to an internal reorganization at City Hall. Public works and community development are merging into a new “physical development” department, something that reflects a City Council priority for heightened focus on economic development, Burt said.

“It’s a new department with a new direction,” Burt said. “Ms. Clancy was laid off; [community development director] Mark Grimes is retiring. …

“I was looking at the skill set that was needed.”

Clancy was given two months’ severance pay, payment for unused sick leave and access to job placement services. But the speed of her layoff and the fact that the five-member City Council did not know about it beforehand upset some council members, including Joanie Clausen.

“I have a lot of questions,” Clausen said. “I am not supportive of how this was handled.”

Clancy is an ex-president of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Public Works Association and was a finalist for city manager when Burt got the job in 2002. Burt discounted reports of tension between the two.

“I’ve been here 12 years; if that was an issue, it would have been one before,” he said. “This is about … having a department that meets those City Council goals.”

Burt confirmed that he did not let the council know ahead of time about his plan to terminate Clancy.

“I told them the day it happened,” he said. “Legally I have the ability to hire, to fire and to change the organization. I’ve been through this before in my career, and when it comes to personnel, this is the most respectful way to do this. It’s less disruptive to the organization.”

In a letter sent to the Golden Valley Sun Post, five former City Council members and two concerned citizens criticized the changes at City Hall, saying they represented a major shift in city structure and policy and deserved more public discussion.

“It is our hope that this rushed process will be halted so that the proposed restructuring can be given the public vetting it deserves,” said the letter, which was signed by former Council Members Mike Freiberg, Scott Grayson, Jan LeSuer, Marti Micks and Paula Pentel, former public safety director Bob Hernz and longtime city resident and academic Bill Joynes.

But Mayor Shep Harris confirmed that the council had expressed a desire to have the city focus more on redevelopment, and at a meeting earlier this week most council members indicated they wanted the city to proceed with their plan. Harris said that Burt had seized on Grimes’ retirement and other departures at City Hall to reorganize to meet that goal.

“I know there’s a lot of controversy around this, although I think in the grand scheme of things we need to do what’s best for the city,” Harris said. “The snow still will be plowed, the streets still will be cleaned. …

“If we emphasize more economic development, we need to run more efficiently. … There’s going to have to be a higher level of coordination between public works and community development.”

The new physical development department will have a director, a job that the city has already posted. The city also wants to hire an associate planner/grant writer.

Parker said Clancy hasn’t decided whether she will take legal action. He questioned whether Burt could abolish the position of public works director when the department and position are created by city ordinance, and the action was taken without the council knowing about it.

Harris said the council will meet in executive session Thursday “to evaluate the performance of the city manager to make sure [this] was done correctly. We will get some advice from our attorney and outside counsel … and have findings when we’re done to see if this was done appropriately under state law.”

Burt has told the council he will retire in November 2015.