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City manager candidate addresses concerns about transparency at town hall

City Manager candidate Carol Mitten speaks to Evanston residents during a town hall Thursday, July 28. Credit: City of Evanston YouTube

Last week, the City of Evanston announced that Carol Mitten, the current city administrator for Urbana, Ill., was the lone finalist for the vacant city manager position. Evanston has not had a permanent city manager in place for nearly 10 months, and two previous searches held this year ended without a final hire.

As part of the final decision making process for City Council, Mitten answered questions from the public at a town hall event at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center on Thursday, July 28.

Mayor Daniel Biss moderated the discussion and posed the questions, both submitted online ahead of time and in person at the town hall.

Going into Thursday’s conversation, though, several articles published by media outlets in the Urbana area began circulating through Evanston circles and community groups. Those articles allege Mitten and other Urbana city staff members violated the Open Meetings Act multiple times, failed to redact the name and home address of a resident in an online document and concealed police complaints.

After those allegations came to light, Evanston Fight for Black Lives – a local activist group reflecting “the values ​​of the national Black Lives Matter Movement” – shared posts on social media encouraging residents to ask their council members to vote “no” on Mitten’s candidacy for city managers.

And at a virtual 8th Ward meeting hosted Thursday evening just before the town hall with Mitten, Council member Devon Reid said that while he believes she is qualified for the role given her experience leading local government bodies, he is concerned about the alleged lack of transparency in the Urbana media articles.

Additionally, he said he wanted the town hall to feature more than just one candidate, but Mitten pulled out of the last city manager search because she did not want to participate in a public forum with multiple candidates, according to Reid.

“Carol Mitten withdrew herself precisely because she did not want to be part of public engagement, and quite frankly, the reason we are presenting a single candidate to the public now, and the reason that we’re rolling out in a manner that I think is actually doing more harm than good, is because the candidate themselves, Carol Mitten, would not participate if there was a public process with multiple candidates,” Reid told his constituents at the 8th Ward meeting. “This was kind of her terms, and that rings troublesome.”

As Evanston residents came into the Council chambers for the town hall, Mitten and Biss could already see the apparent skepticism among locals regarding Mitten’s candidacy for city manager. Several members of the public in the audience held signs with phrases like “This Mitten doesn’t fit,” among others.

But, at the town hall, Mitten did finally have a chance to address the accusations floating around Evanston about her commitment to transparency and police accountability.

“I’d like to introduce myself differently than I usually do in a professional setting since there’s a lot of information circulating out of Urbana that suggests things about me that are simply not true,” Mitten said in her opening statement. “The individuals who are spreading this information have a clear agenda, and that agenda means more to them than facts.”

One of the specific incidents that Mitten addressed surrounded an opinion from the Illinois Attorney General, which found that the Urbana City Council, the mayor and Mitten violated the Open Meetings Act by not allowing residents to criticize specific employees during the public comment portion of Council meetings .

At Thursday night’s town hall in Evanston, Mitten said that around that time period in the fall of 2020, public comments were becoming openly hostile toward members of the city staff. As a result, Mitten and her team decided to prohibit critical remarks about specific employees during public comment to protect staff members.

In the end, though, the Urbana City Council got sued for that decision, and the state’s attorney general found that the city had violated the Open Meetings Act.

“We learned a hard lesson, and I still struggled sometimes with how to protect staff and how to create an environment that is civil, given that it’s their work space,” Mitten said. “They’re entitled to not work in a hostile work environment.”

Mitten speaks with Mayor Daniel Biss prior to the town hall Thursday. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

Mitten also addressed questions about Urbana’s handling of an investigation into the use of force by a police officer on a 21-year-old woman named Aleyah Lewis during an altercation that took place in April 2020. Lewis resisted arrest after Urbana officers responded to the scene where her friend fired a gun, and she was ultimately charged with aggravated battery for allegedly punching and kicking an officer. An investigation conducted by an external firm hired by Urbana concluded that the officers did not violate any use of force policies in their interaction with Lewis.

But many Urbana residents were outraged by the lack of discipline for the officers involved, and Mitten said at Thursday’s town hall that the city did review its use of force policy and stated commitment to de-escalation as a result of the police incident with Lewis.

“We had town halls where people could give feedback, and we had a number of occasions where we discussed the use of force policy with the Council, even though that’s not a policy that the Council voted on,” Mitten said. “We ended up adopting the 10 shared principles that have been put forward by the NAACP and the Illinois Chiefs of Police around a commitment to more sensitive policing. So there’s a lot of good things that came out from the incident, but not everybody was satisfied.”

Later in the meeting, Mitten asked the audience to consider that “there’s another side to the story” about her career and her record, and she said she wanted to meet with residents to discuss their concerns if given the opportunity. When Biss asked her how she would recruit a diverse workforce of city staff, she said the first step is always building a welcoming and inclusive environment where people actually want to work.

Moving forward, Reid will be meeting directly with Mitten on Friday, July 28, he told residents at the 8th Ward meeting Thursday night. The Council is expected to further discuss Mitten’s candidacy in the coming days, and Reid said he wants to make sure the Council does not rush into any decisions simply because Evanston has gone so long without a permanent city manager.

“I also support taking the time to ensure that we find the right candidate,” Reid said. “I do think there’s a sense that the community wants us to make a decision, and they want us to make a decision quick. I think that does represent a certain segment of the community, but I don’t think it represents the broader community.”

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