SAFETY HARBOR — They didn't get much advance notice, but a crowd of city residents still managed to assemble Thursday night in City Hall to hear city commissioners discuss whether to rehire their recently departed city manager.
And when the answer was yes — unanimously — the council chamber erupted with applause, cheers and even a few tears.
It was an emotional return for Matt Spoor, who was Safety Harbor city manager for four years until Jan. 8, when he left for a new job as director of management and budget for the city of St. Petersburg. But after only a month in that job, Spoor approached Safety Harbor officials this week to ask for his old job back.
Commissioners had been preparing for interviews scheduled for today with five finalists for the city manager job. After hearing from Spoor, Mayor Andy Steingold hastily called a special meeting of the City Commission on Thursday to consider Spoor's request.
Spoor, sitting in the audience rather than in his old spot on the dais, frequently looked down at his hands as the commissioners talked. Though the discussion went on for a few minutes, the result was never really in doubt.
"When Mr. Spoor left, we were all very sad and we said, 'Mr. Spoor, if you ever want to come back, we'll welcome you with open arms,' '' Mayor Andy Steingold began. "I think you've proved yourself to the citizens, the employees and the commissioners of Safety Harbor. … You've done such good things for the community."
Vice Mayor Joe Ayoub thanked the 72 people who "stuck their necks out and applied for the position. … But we have a bird in the hand right here."
Only Commissioner Nina Bandoni sounded a negative note during the meeting. While she praised the job Spoor did as manager, she said she had leaned toward having the five finalists come for interviews anyway. Then, she learned Thursday morning that two of the five had already rescinded their applications after Spoor talked with them.
That "took away our options," she said, "and I feel very troubled by it."
Nevertheless, the commission voted 5-0 to rehire Spoor under his previous contract terms. Spoor, 34, will get to keep the time off he had earned previously.
Spoor did not speak during the meeting, but afterward was surrounded by well wishers giving him hugs and celebrating his return.
Spoor declined comment until after he talked to his bosses in St. Petersburg on Friday morning, then provided only a written statement.
In it, he praised the officials and staff he worked with during his brief tenure in St. Petersburg, calling them talented, hardworking and committed. His decision to ask for his old job back "is not about St. Petersburg," wrote Spoor, who lives in that city.
"My decision is a result of having to admit to myself that while my employment left Safety Harbor, my heart never did," he said. "During my tenure I developed a love and admiration for the city, its residents and staff. It is rare that a man is given a second chance after making a decision. I am honored and appreciative that the City Commission of Safety Harbor has given me that second chance."
In the statement, Spoor said he deeply regretted "the obvious inconvenience and undue hardship this has caused both cities."
Spoor will work his last day with St. Petersburg on Friday. Safety Harbor city commissioners are expected to approve his new employment contract at their next meeting on Feb. 20.
Diane Steinle can be reached at (727) 445-4184 or [email protected] To submit a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.