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Rolanda Russell left her position as Interi
m City Manager last week in much the same way she assumed it – with little fanfare. At the last City Council meeting she attended as Interim City Manager, on July 27, accepting a bouquet of flowers from the entire Council, Ms. Russell thanked the residents of Evanston, City Council and City staff. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl conveyed her own thanks and those of retired Mayor Lorraine Morton.
Noting that she herself is a “woman of few words,” Ms. Russell said, “Let’s get this meeting over on time tonight.”
Nonetheless, at the call of the wards at the end of the meeting, aldermen praised Ms. Russell for her calm steadfastness, her critical decision-making, her work ethic and her humor.
Newcomers to the Council thanked her for helping to educate them in the workings of the Council and the City. Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said, “Thank you for, in large and small ways, being a part of my education.”
Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “I am new here, but when I arrived I arrived to a steady ship.”
Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward; Mark Tendam, 6th Ward; and Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, each thanked Ms. Russell and wished her well in her new home in Arizona.
Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said to Ms. Russell, “You are one really class act.” Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “It did not escape anybody that you are a healer for our City and our Council.”
Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said, “I’ve not heard a complaint about you. I don’t think anyone has.”
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said, “Interim City Manager does not adequately describe what you have meant to us. … We [City Council] felt like we were on a plane without a pilot, but it turned out that we had a real fighter pilot on staff.”
Ms. Russell’s Reflections
With her time in office winding down to a matter of hours, Ms. Russell found time to answer by e-mail questions from the RoundTable regarding her time with the City.
Ms. Russell was appointed Interim City Manager in April of 2008, when, it could be said, the City was in crisis because of the early retirement of a number of senior City staff members (including the City Manager) and because of its still-continuing financial squeeze.
Describing that situation, Ms. Russell said, “There is a saying, ‘Use what you’ve got to get what you need.’ … The City was in crisis with such a quick exodus of key personnel. What I needed was to ensure that there was no gap in municipal service to the citizens of Evanston. The goal was to ensure the delivery of basic expectations: Turn on the faucet – expect water. Call 911 – expect immediate emergency services. Set out garbage – expect it to be picked up the day we promised. Get a foot of snow – expect passable streets. Go to the parks – expect a clean environment. Go to the Library – expect service and materials.
“My priority was to stabilize the organization and ensure what was happening within these walls did not affect the community. What I had to work with was … dedicated public servants willing to work long hours and assume several concurrent positions to get the job done.”
Another of her initial decisions was to publicly state there would be no layoffs related to balancing this year’s budget. “In addition to staff’s taking the Early Retirement Incentives [in April 2008], some top performers were being recruited by other more stable cities or organizations. That decision allowed the City to retain an additional group of key, experienced staff to help run the City.
“I started the budget process early in August 2008 and used several methods to get a budget passed without a property tax increase: I pushed several technology initiatives that saved both time and money. For example, we now have the ability to accept applications online, and we have a paperless City Council agenda which no longer requires 70 reams of paper twice a month [for printing Council packets].”
Ms. Russell said she did not regret any of her decisions, although she later reversed some of her initial reorganizations of City staff.
Finally, Ms. Russell said she cannot say the City is necessarily “better” now, “just different. Many citizens thank me for not recommending a budget that required a property tax increase.”
Regarding future challenges, Ms. Russell said, “We have significant financial challenges in the community and municipal government. We still have the pension issue; we are experiencing reduced revenues and still have the need to make deep cuts in municipal services next year.”
Looking to Evanston’s future, Ms. Russell said she had deferred filling certain key City staff positions, such as Community Development Director, First Assistant Corporation Councel, and Public Works Director, leaving those decisions to Walter Bobkiewicz, who became City Manager on Monday.
She also said, “Wally Bobkiewicz and I have had numerous conversations about the organization and community. He is an extremely bright and experienced City Manager and will do well. … He understands the need to engage, communicate and have the right people on board at the time.”
Ms. Russell’s final word to the residents of Evanston is this: “Evanston is a beautiful City, filled with talented, passionate people. My message is to continue to value the environment and capture the full use of talent in all sections of the City, discover more ways to engage the youth, and have a supportive debate when the new Council makes difficult decisions about 2010-11.”