So few residents attended the City Council’s July 29 strategic planning meeting that it was held in the aldermanic library. Consultant Jean Bonander, a former City Manager from Larkspur, Cal. whom City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz knew from his days there, served as facilitator for the 3½ hour session.
Discussions about whether the City might consider selling or re-using one or more of its buildings, the purpose of economic development and the state of the City’s finances evoked candid and sometimes heated responses from Council members.
The goal for the meeting was not to set new goals but to prioritize the 13 goals adopted by Council as goals for the present year: At-risk and at-need families; capital improvement program planning; the Climate Action Plan, development services and design review; economic development; innovation; Northwestern University; funding of police and firefighters’ pensions; Robert Crown Center improvements; safety; senior programs; services to Latino populations; visual and performing arts and youth services.
Ms. Bonander said, “There are a lot of goals but not a lot of clarity. There are no objectives to go along with them.” She said Council members should narrow those goals, form objectives for each of them and ask themselves, “What will you do in the next year? In the next four years?”
Reminding the Council members that they should concern themselves primarily with policy rather than with “hands-on” execution, Ms. Bonander first asked them to divide the present goals between those on a “capital improvement track” and those on a “programmatic track.”
In the first salvo of an evening of criticism of her colleagues, Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, said, “The issue of dividing capital improvement [goals] from programmatic ones is very important. Your distinction may be lost on many around this table. … People are too focused on operational [objectives] and not policy. They are really in the weeds and tampering on a day-to-day basis.”
“Yes, we can separate programs from capital needs but we need to look at definitions, because they mean different things.” said Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward.
Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, rose to the defense. “We’ve made great gains,” he said, naming the passage of the Climate Action Plan, the securing of grants for a federally qualified health center, the establishment of the 311 call center and the continuing work on affordable housing. “We have been active in bringing new and better services. I don’t know that we’ve compromised – we’ve gotten better,” he said.
The Straw Votes
Then, handing out stickers to each Council member, she asked them to “vote” with their stickers for three goals in each of the two tracks. The top priorities for capital improvement were facilities, the water facility and streets. In the programmatic category the top three were economic development, [supporting] at-risk and at-need families and the City’s finances.
While these topics elicited some discussion, they did not lead Council members to define goals or objectives.
The discussion of how to manage, maintain and maximize the City’s facilities touched upon costs, revenues and other benefits to the community. Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, asked, “How much does the Civic Center need?”
“The building is solid,” replied Mr. Bobkiewicz, but he added that the HVAC, electrical and plumbing systems all need work. “There is an opportunity to have a discussion on other uses for this building – maybe some public use.” He said it would take many millions of dollars.
“Don’t add it up,” said Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl.
“This is where we fall down,” said Ald. Burrus. “We don’t add up where the problems are. We have to start thinking long-term.”
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she disagreed with Ald. Burrus. “We did it with streets,” she said.
“And with sewers, too,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.
“We’ve not done it with facilities,” said Ald. Holmes. “We started to do it three years ago when the City Manager brought us Chandler-Newberger, the Noyes Cultural Arts Center and the Harley Clarke mansion.” She suggested that residents should be informed about the cost of maintaining all the facilities.
“We haven’t decided that we want to keep all [our] facilities,” said Seventh Ward Alderman Jane Grover. “The key is to maximize their use.”
Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said, “Why don’t we figure out the cost of each facility [so we can decide whether] to keep it or [choose] other options?”
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, suggested “synthesizing [that idea] into a goal: Take each asset, get a sense of what it will take to get it into usable shape, what it will cost to maintain it, and what [revenue] it’s bringing in and could bring in. It’s important to have the numbers – the big, scary numbers.”
Ald. Rainey recalled that there had been “a proposal for a public-private partnership at Robert Crown.”
“We don’t do public-private partnerships,” said Ald. Burrus, “because we have so many special interests.”
Ald. Rainey said the City’s parking garages, owned by the City but operated by private companies, are examples of public-private partnerships.
The City’s plans to expand the sale of water to other communities comes at a hefty price, because Evanston would have to build or help build the water mains and install the pipes at least to the City limits.“The idea is for it to be a resource – even with the capital investments – not a break-even [enterprise],” said Assistant City Manager and CFO Marty Lyons.
“The lake is shrinking in a very serious way,” said Ald. Tendam. “If we’re taking things out, we have to figure out a way to put things in.”
Aldermen discussed the City’s system for identifying streets in need of repair and touched on setting up a similar system for alley-paving. No conclusion was reached about whether the City would retain or modify its cost-sharing program for alley paving, under which the City and the residents share the cost equally.
“Economic development is different in each ward. Some of you don’t know anything about economic development,” Ald. Burrus told her colleagues.
Ald. Wilson responded, “Stop attacking us.”
Ald. Burrus said she had not been attacking anyone, but many of her colleagues simultaneously contradicted that.
Ald. Burrus continued, “The issue is whether economic development is incentives – making businesses want to come here – or having a place that is open to economic development.”
Ald. Wilson said he agreed with that. “Some of us believe economic development is – or primarily is – the incentive, and that creates problems for us as a group. “
Ald. Braithwaite said, “A good economic development project is one that increases the tax base and increases employment opportunities for Evanston residents. The larger question – and where we get into trouble – is ‘How much and at what level?’”
Ald. Rainey said, “I have come to accept some of Coleen’s criticism, in that [our economic development] does not give her any confidence in return-on-investment. … I think in this community we’ve not made a lot of mistakes. We used to give away money. Now we lend or reimburse [businesses] for what they already spent.”
Ald. Wynne appeared to offer a compromise view on economic development: “You can create a great environment but you can also stimulate economic development by judicious use of City funds. … We have also given zoning allowances – in density, height, changes in use – that have been enormous help in economic development.”
Discussion of at-risk and “at-need” families centered on what sort of assistance the City now provides and should provide.
“Add ‘diversity’ [to that] – of race, age, income and housing. That’s why we do this – we care about those people,” said Ald. Braithwaite.
“We know that diversity comes with a cost,” said Ald. Holmes.
Initially, the orphan of the evening appeared to be the funding of the pension funds for police and firefighters and City finance policy, but the questions of policy and concern could become a new Council goal. Ald. Burrus opened with, “I don’t think everybody’s as concerned as I am. I don’t think there is consensus that we have a financial issue.”
This time Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl halted her. “I do not agree with you. I think everyone is concerned about the pensions,” she said, adding that she felt that Council members have supported her work both in Evanston and in Springfield to address the pension crisis.
“We don’t have a solution, so we don’t always talk about it,” said Ald. Holmes.
“We all think about it. It’s on our minds all the time,” said Ald. Grover. She also said she believes that financial considerations permeate nearly all deliberations of City Council.
Mr. Lyons said he would “come back with [a report of policies] already in place, such as the City’s debt policy, the fund-balance policy. We’re going to be forced to have a pension-funding policy starting in 2014. We can put together a framework and let the Council take a look at it.”
The framework, Mr. Bobkiewicz indicated, would include policy questions the Council could consider in coming up with a “finance” goal.
During Citizen Comment at the start of the meeting, three residents suggested goals for the Council. Junad Rizki said he thought the City should do an analysis of the expenses and revenues of the water utility. Ron Fleckman of Citizens Greener Evanston suggested that Council incorporate the concept of sustainability into as many goals as possible. Mary Rosinski of noparksale.org, the ad-hoc committee formed to oppose the sale of the Harley Clarke mansion and the land surrounding it to a private developer, suggested that Council craft a “lakefront protection plan.”
Mr. Bobkiewicz said he anticipates one more meeting on prioritizing goals before Council will hold larger public meetings to discuss the goals and the strategic plan.