The new City Manager has barely been on the job two weeks, but he spent some time this summer doing his homework.
He made two visits to Evanston after his appointment by the Council to the position of City Manager; he has compiled a list of 100 Evanstonians (names solicited from Council members and City department heads) with whom he plans to talk; and he keeps abreast of opinion by, among other things, paying attention to cyber-chatter, such as blogs, e-mails and tweets. He plans to begin a blog by Sept. 1.
“Wally,” as Walter Bobkiewicz III appears to be known throughout the Civic Center, sat down with the RoundTable last week to share his views about the City and his philosophy of management.
Mr. Bobkiewicz’s two trips to Evanston gave him a “sense of the place,” he said. Even so, he said, he was somewhat surprised at the high level of staff commitment, “The [members of the] City staff are a very dedicated group of individuals who want to make the quality of life in Evanston better,” he said.
Rolanda Russell, who preceded Mr. Bobkiewicz in her position as Interim City Manager, told the RoundTable previously that she had not filled certain vacancies, giving him the opportunity to hire a new First Assistant Corporation Counsel (Elke Tober-Purze is the interim first assistant), a new director of Community Development (Dennis Marino is the interim director) and a new Public Works director (Suzette Eggleston and Dave Stoneback are alternate interim directors). “We’ll move forward with the Law Department [position] by the end of August,” he said, “and we hope to have a new Community Development director by September or October.” There is not yet a time frame to hire a Public Works director, he said.
Also still vacant and without a hiring timeframe are the positions for a second Assistant City Manager (Martin Lyons is one assistant) and an economic development director, Mr. Bobkiewicz said. He added that Mr. Lyons will focus much of his time on City finances, given the deficit in the present budget and the necessity of planning for next year’s budget. For the time being, Mr. Bobkiewicz himself will be the Economic Development director.
Finances – Looking for a Balance
With a grin Mr. Bobkiewicz affirmed a RoundTable comment that coming from California – a state more financially distressed than Illinois – may have prepared him for the City’s budget crunch.
Mr. Bobkiewicz said he thought the City could “manage through” the present budget shortfall, at present estimated to be about $2.7 million. “It’s not getting markedly worse,” he said. “Marty [Lyons] has asked the departments to cut about 2 percent from their budgets, to consider expenditures very carefully. We’ll continue to monitor expenses and revenues and be back to the Council in October with an update” he added.
He said he felt it was too early to consider whether furloughs would be needed, but added a furlough is “preferable to a layoff.”
Earlier this month the City began planning for next year’s budget “We asked departments for ideas. We asked staff to be creative [about finding new ways to deliver] the services they are providing. …
The City may not be able to guarantee that there will be no layoffs in the upcoming budget, Mr. Bobkiewicz said. He added, “You start with the idea that the staff you have is the staff you need. … The men and women who work for the City of Evanston make Evanston what it is. One question is, ‘Can we balance the revenues with the staff we have?’”
Those revenues, he said, can go a long way. “People say we’re broke. We’re not broke. We have revenue of $90 million. You can do a lot with $90 million,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz. He said he will seek a balance between cutting services and raising taxes by looking to the community. “We’ll look for a community standard,” he said, adding that the Evanston community’s standard [expectation for services] is “a couple of clicks higher than those of many surrounding communities.” On the other hand, he said, “Money is money, and even in good times people don’t want to write a big check to the government.”
Keeping the business community vital and improving relations with Northwestern University are two of Mr. Bobkiewicz’s other priorities. The City must make efforts to retain businesses as well as to attract new ones, he said. “We have to make sure we’re in touch with the businesses” in at least two areas: expansion and enforcement. “We have talked about attracting new businesses but we also need to ask, ‘What are we doing to catch the expansion of Evanston businesses?’” Noting that Skokie has just come out with a plan to revitalize its downtown, he said, “Evanston is in their circle of expansion. We need to keep our businesses from crossing the border [into Skokie.]”
He acknowledged that some business-City interactions are “not always pleasant – particularly when the issue is [City code] enforcement. But we have to keep in touch with them and be sure we’re doing things fairly.”
With a new Council, a new City Manager and a new president at Northwestern University, Mr. Bobkiewicz sees hope for improved town-gown relations. He said he was “struck by the fact that the City and the University seem to get along so well except at the top level.” Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, he said, has said she will reach out to the new president, Morton Schapiro. He also said that he has just completed his term on the Syracuse University Board of Trustees, and he felt that experience would help increase understanding on both sides.
“Trying to wrestle Northwestern to the ground is not going to work. It’s crazy to say, ‘They don’t pay enough,’” Mr. Bobkiewicz said. The City should look at its relationship with Northwestern as a business relationship. He added, “The City, however, has to be smart – and over a long period of time we have not been smart. If we deal with them as business partners, we’ll both be successful.”
The Manager’s Approach
Mr. Bobkiewicz has called a special meeting of City Council tentatively scheduled for Sept. 21 to discuss goals and priorities, chiefly for the upcoming budget. Mr. Bobkiewicz said he would ask Council members ,as a part of the goal-setting, to talk about retaining and attracting businesses. “I don’t believe the City of Evanston has done a good enough job of setting priorities for the problems we have,” he said.
For the upcoming budget, said Mr. Bobkiewicz, his goal for that meeting is to “offer reductions that make sense.” The perspective he would offer the Council, he said, is, “How can we do business better and smarter? How can we do business without having to raise taxes?”
Asked about the adage that Evanston’s unofficial motto is “Progress without change,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “That’s not an unusual cry of a community. The challenge is to modulate that, share with the community what the benefits of the change will be. … You have to work hard and watch very carefully and see what the community standard is.” He said he has a “staff perspective that there’s a bit of space [for change]. Watch and listen carefully to see where the line is. If you cross that line just [for the sake of change], it’s like crossing the third rail. Good staff can learn and help the Council learn.” He added, “I’m not afraid to get burned – or at least singed a bit – if it will help the community move forward.”