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Guest essay: Open letter to Evanston’s Mayor and City Council on City Manager search

To Mayor Daniel Biss and the Evanston City Council:

As we enter the next chapter in Evanston’s increasingly desperate search to find a new City Manager, some reassessment is in order. Why do we not seem to be able to get candidates who both suit our needs and who actually want the job?

Our advice:

  • Make antiracism and equity indispensable and fundamental in the selection process.
  • Articulate a job description based on the values ​​and qualities residents have said they want.
  • Work with a firm which prioritizes racial equity and antiracism, and has the track record to prove it.
  • Make no hiring decisions, even of an interim City Manager, without a fully public process.

How we got here:

Wally Bobkiewicz served as City Manager for 10 years. Although praised by some for his promotion of Evanston’s business and commercial interests, his tenure saw multiple cases of racial bias in our Police Department, Human Resources and Parks. The city was forced to settle numerous lawsuits, totaling nearly $2 million.

Bobkiewicz presided over callous attempts to remove social-service programs from the budget, to dismantle the highly effective, life-saving Youth and Young Adult Services Department and the city’s Victim Advocates, who help survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. These policies disproportionately affected the Black and Latinx communities.

After Bobkiewicz’s departure, then-Mayor Stephen Hagerty and several Council members tried to hire interim manager and Bobkiewicz acolyte Erika Storlie (who was responsible for firing Youth and Young Adult Director Kevin Brown on the flimsiest of pretexts) without a national search or public input.

After a public outcry, the city engaged the firm GovHR, and through an open process, identified two excellent Black female candidates with sterling credentials, both of whom gave impressive Town Hall interviews, compared with the lackluster performance of Ms. Storlie. Yet the Council opted to select Storlie the day after the Town Hall, with barely a glance at the results from public surveys and stakeholder interviews.

Even though Storlie was the least experienced in terms of budgeting, management, and racial equity work, City Council members Judy Fiske, Peter Braithwaite, Melissa Wynne, Don Wilson, Eleanor Revelle and Ann Rainey all voted to confirm her. Holdouts Tom Suffredin and Cicely Fleming expressed their dissatisfaction with the results and the process: “Our task was to have a transparent public process and, in consultation with the people we were elected to represent, select the best candidate to implement policies to move Evanston forward ,” Suffredin said in a letter in the Evanston RoundTable. “I do not believe that we did that. Too much emphasis was placed on personal relationships with Erika and not enough on what residents need or the more substantial credentials of other candidates”.

Fleming stated that her “desire for transparency and the prioritization of resident input has created rifts between myself and my colleagues. As a Black woman, this is unfortunately par for the course when you dare push against the status quo and challenge the dominant culture.”

Both the rejected candidates, Aretha R. Ferrell-Benavides and Maria Peoples, have moved on to become successful city managers elsewhere. Storlie, as we recall, resigned several months later amid an investigation into the lakefront sexual abuse scandal.

In November 2021, a new City Council began the search for Storlie’s replacement. CABG put forth a candidate rubric, prioritizing commitments to government transparency, racial and economic justice and effective moral leadership. As CABG stated at the time:

“Evanston embarked on a city manager search that began to replicate some disturbing patterns: initial reluctance to keep the public informed, limited opportunities for public engagement, and a disagreement about whether or not to release recordings of stakeholder interviews with the candidates.”

The city did eventually provide the public with a detailed timeline on the search and the job description portfolio, giving residents an idea of ​​what skills were being requested. Two finalists, Michael Jasso and Daniel Ramos, were selected, and though residents and community groups expressed a strong preference for Mr. Ramos due to his experience and commitment to racial equity in a diverse city, the Council took so long to decide that Mr. Ramos eventually took another job. Another great opportunity lost.

The most recent search, apparently begun in December 2021, was the least transparent of the three. While the City Manager recruitment web page remained disturbingly blank, the new search firm was interviewing candidates without providing any information for the public about where the job was being promoted, what criteria were being centered or even the job description. By the time Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma answered these questions in April, the search had already been narrowed down to two finalists, both white males. The public was given one Town Hall to observe the candidates. The only other people asked for feedback were representatives from local organizations and city staff. There was no interview specifically with city residents.

To our dismay, eight Council members voted to approve John Fournier, an Assistant City Administrator in Ann Arbor, Mich. Mr. Fournier ultimately declined the position after a dispute over compensation, but by then candidate Snapper Poche, who was endorsed by CABG and received the highest marks from the resident surveys, had decided to take another position.

So where do we go from here? The Council met in executive session Wednesday night and are meeting again this Saturday afternoon. We don’t know what has been said, but it is clear you are deciding whether or not to go back to an earlier candidate or to re-open the search. Here’s a bit of advice from residents who care about Evanston as much as you do.

  • The process needs to be re-created, and racial justice needs to be front and center from the beginning. Too many people in city government seem to believe that racial equity experience would be “nice,” but not as essential as, say budgeting experience. Yet racial justice is core to creating the “livable,” diverse city Evanstonians claim to want. All of our major issues – affordable housing, development, policing, climate resilience, public education – are connected to race and racism. Implementing racial and social justice is a skill, but it is also intrinsic to one’s values. You can teach someone how to implement racial equity, but you can’t teach the desire and commitment to do so.
  • A racially equitable hiring process would also actively recruit candidates of color. And if your response is “Well, sure, but what we really need is a good (manager, budget maven, team leader etc.),” are you saying nonwhite people can’t be good managers, budgeters or leaders? We urge you to reconsider any previous Black or Latinx candidates who might still be interested.
  • The Council and Mayor must articulate the values ​​we are looking for in a City Manager. The qualities that residents and officials listed for their ideal candidate in focus groups and emails to the Council and search firm GovHR were summarized as:
  • After clarifying and prioritizing these qualities, the Council should look for an appropriate search firm. Alas, search firms can serve as gatekeepers, preferring candidates who may interview well and appeal to racially biased professional norms, but who do not have a deep understanding or commitment to racial justice. The Council needs to find a search firm that centers diverse, antiracist hiring, and that has a track record to prove it. A hiring process prioritizing racial equity will also convince qualified candidates that Evanston is a desirable place to work.
  • Finally, no candidate should be hired without a public process: published timetable, job description and hiring strategy; town halls, stakeholder interviews and interviews with residents. Any candidate who refuses to participate in such a process should automatically be disqualified.

Evanston does not need to reinvent the wheel. We’ve suggested working through the Government Alliance on Race and Equity to develop a hiring process. District 65 has modeled how to do a racially equitable hiring process. Indeed the Council itself, in its adopted Commitment to End Structural Racism and Achieve Racial Equity, proclaims it will actively engage with GARE. The information is out there for the Council to use.

Folks, we tried it your way. GovHR listened to the community and did a good job of affirmative recruiting. But the Council failed us in claiming Storlie was the “most qualified.” In Fournier, we ended up with a flawed candidate whose ultimate refusal has tarnished the city’s image. In both cases, we lost out on excellent candidates with strong humanitarian values ​​to go along with their impressive credentials.

Maybe it’s time to prioritize hiring a decent person: someone who will engage in negotiations and disputes with integrity. Someone with the insight and the fortitude to recognize racially disparate policies and to change them. Someone who actually cares about everyone in Evanston and not just the influencers and those with privilege.

Betty Ester, for Citizens Network of Protection
Lesley Williams, for the Community Alliance for Better Government
Betsy Wilson, for Evanston Too
Darlene Cannon and Elliot Zashin, for Reclaim Evanston

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