An unusual electricity buzzed in Council Chambers as the Aug.10 City Council meeting got under way. Sitting next to Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl was new Evanston City Manager Walter (“Wally”) Bobkiewicz. Before the night concluded, Mr. Bobkiewicz participated in, and witnessed, in microcosm, the City of Evanston at work. The agenda included mundane city government at work, the City’s ever-present budget woes cropping up in unexpected places, the City asking for cash assistance (this time from Cook County), opposition to downtown development spearheaded by vocal downtown residents, and the effects of the poor economy on such City services as affordable housing initiatives.

In contrast to the past several meetings, the day-to-day workings of the City made up the slimmest portion of the night’s agenda and passed via the Consent Agenda, meaning there was no debate. For example, Council approved a contract for the installation of a heated intake system at the Evanston Water Utility. Anchor ice shut down the intake in January; the heated intake will prevent a repeat. The contract is contingent upon acceptance and funding by the Illinois EPA which, according to a staff memo, will reduce the City’s payment obligation to $21,715 a year over 20 years.

Similarly, a change order passed, reducing the contract cost of the Emerson/Sherman sewer relief project by $438,195.55. This was due to the use of fewer materials than anticipated passed. The acceptance of a Justice Assistance Grant of $9,160 for the Youth Outreach Initiative; the lease of Studio 215 at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center to three artists; and a change in the snow emergency parking hours (as detailed by the Traffic Guy) showed the hard work of City Staff, but elicited no debate among aldermen and passed on the consent agenda.

Budget woes cropped up during debate over a proposal to replace the Dempster Street Beach boat racks for non-motorized watercraft (see adjacent story). Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, asked, “Why in the context of this immediate budget crisis, when we’re $3 million in the red right now?” Mr. Bobkiewicz can expect to hear a similar refrain over the coming months.

Continuing a theme, the City is applying for another grant of funds from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program portion of the stimulus package. This time, the City is seeking $4,000,000 of the more than $28,000,000 already awarded to Cook County.

City Staff estimates that the grant would affect 10 to 15 units of foreclosed housing.

Sue Guderley, Interim Assistant Director of Planning, said Cook County has slightly different criteria than the state, including a Green Building Rehab component. As with the two prior applications, one for $3 million from Illinois and the other for $40 million from HUD, the City awaits word.

Downtown development came next. First, although a new Restaurant at 1739 Sherman, the “Ultimate Chicken Bar” (“specializing in low fat, low sodium, low calorie chicken teriyaki marketed to the healthy lifestyle,” according to Site Plan and Appearance Review Committee minutes) passed unanimously, it did not pass without comment. Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, pulled the item off the consent agenda to note, “My concern is just the vision of what we want to be doing on the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue.” Citing similar restaurants, nail salons and cell phone outlets in the area, she said she wanted more comprehensive planning “down the road.”

Next came a proposed outdoor seating area for Las Palmas Mexican restaurant (at University Place and Benson). Although the stakes were very different, the scene was reminiscent of the Tower Battle of 2008. Citizens filled the room to voice support for or opposition to the patio, complete with petitions, information packets, photographs and allegations of violations of City Ordinance notice requirements. In the end, the modest size of the patio, limited by amendment to three tables from four, and to hours of operation ending at 8:00 p.m. on weekdays and 9:30 p.m. on weekends, along with the restaurant manager’s appeal to the Council to allow him to continue to employ waitstaff, swayed all aldermen but Ald. Fiske. The patio is now open.

With City basics, the budget, grant requests, downtown development, and the economy covered, the meeting adjourned. Did Mr. Bobkiewicz know what he was getting into? According to Assistant to the City Manager Joseph McRae, the answer is yes. “He has hit the ground running. He’s a hard worker,” said Mr. McRae. As City staff and aldermen filed out of the Council chambers to the elevator after the meeting ended at 10:30 p.m., there was proof. Mr. Bobkiewicz hit the “up” button to go back to his office.