About 75 people attended the forum convened at Chute Middle School by Organization for Positive Action (OPAL) and Leadership on Jan. 31. The three candidates for Third Ward Alderman, and one of the two candidates for City Clerk attended. Angela Williams served as moderator, and Oliver Ruff reprised his role from another recent forum as timekeeper.
Melissa Wynne is seeking re-election for a fourth term as Alderman of the Third Ward. Alex Block and Alex Morgan have challenged her. Devon Reid is running for City Clerk. Incumbent Rodney Greene told the RoundTable he was not able to attend the forum because of a previous engagement.
All candidates were asked the same questions, some prepared by OPAL and some from the audience. The topics included affordable housing, help for immigrants, racial understanding and equity, and the financial cost of living in Evanston.
Question: What are your top two priorities?
“Our economic viability has always been my priority – economic development, bringing in and retaining jobs,” Ald. Wynne said. “We have expanded the Autobarn [car dealership on Chicago Avenue] and brought in Trader Joe’s to expand the tax base and attract people to spend their money here.” A second priority, she said is to “look to equity in the City. That issue is key.” She noted that the City is in the process of hiring an equity coordinator to ensure that City procedures are always considered through an equity lens.
Mr. Morgan said he would “engage with and listen to the people in the ward, starting the conversation about what the priorities are in our community.” He said he would hold monthly town-hall meetings and weekly coffees at local coffee shops. “I will make sure your public servants are coming to you,” he said.
Intra-ward communication and affordability throughout Evanston were the two priorities for Mr. Block. “If you call me, if you email me, I will respond,” he said. He said there is an “affordability crisis in the Third Ward if our property taxes squeeze people out.”
Mr. Reid said his priorities, if elected City Clerk, would be to modernize the Clerk’s office. He would like to create an online legislation-tracker, so residents could see when ordinances and resolutions were introduced and passed and who voted for and against them. He also said he would like to increase local election participation and would “make sure we clarify the election process.” He was referring to the confusion emanating from the posting on the City Clerk’s website of new dates to file nominating petitions.
Question: How will you prepare to help immigrant families?
In December of last year, the City, by ordinance, became a “welcoming city.” Last month, both School Districts followed suit with welcoming resolutions. The ordinance and the resolutions state essentially that their safety and law-enforcement personnel will not act as arms of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement in ascertaining immigration status. They will offer cooperation in criminal matters. Families can request City services and children can attend the public schools without being asked about their immigration status.
Mr. Morgan said, “You can pass an ordinance that declares we are [a welcoming community] but what are the things we are doing as individuals? There are refugees coming in. How do they find a welcome here? I think that’s part of the role of an alderman – to take an idea and pass an ordinance and find organizations that are working on these issues so we can come back to our friends and neighbors and say, ‘I think you’d be interested in this. What are other ways we can help you?’”
Mr. Block said he felt the ordinance and resolutions should not be just “a show of good will” and that the City and the School Districts should stand by the protections in them. He added, “We may encounter a situation where federal dollars are withheld. As Alderman I would be proud to say ‘Good bye’ to that money and link arms with our brothers and sisters.”
Ald. Wynne said she was “proud to have voted for the Welcoming Ordinance. I think we all recognized we were taking a risk. You can just see that people are ready to step up.”
“I think what we need to do is double down on our values in Evanston,” said Mr. Reid. “Some cities offer an I.D. that allows folks who are essentially undocumented to access services such as banking.” He added that the City Council, not the Clerk, would have to do that and that he would ask the Council to do so.
Question: How can we better fund our schools and address the police and firefighter pensions and without raising property taxes?
None of the candidates thought this was possible, but all voiced support for School District 65’s referendum, which will appear on the April 4 ballot.
“Turning our back on schools at a time like this is the wrong way to go,” said Mr. Morgan. “The City Council needs to help. The fact is Northwestern University will not be affected, but they can help.”
Ald. Wynne said, “I agree our property taxes are high. Some of that is because of the tax structure in Illinois. I am in favor of the referendum. My children went to Lincoln and Nichols schools and Evanston Township High School, and they benefited. I do think we want to maintain that high level of quality.” She said she recognized that if the credendum passes, “that will represent a property tax burden, but in the end, maintaining high-quality schools is the best for all children of Evanston.”
Regarding the firefighters’ and police officers’ pensions, Ald. Wynne said the City is “maintaining its responsibilities, and we are working with Springfield.”
Mr. Block said, “I don’t see how I could not support the referendum, to maintain the quality of our schools.” As to the pensions, he said, “We have to make sure we are getting the best estimates for pension-fund contributions.”
Mr. Reid said he supports the referendum. “I think it’s great where the citizens get to decide,” he said. “Property tax is not an equitable way of funding our schools.” He also said he would look at consolidating the two public School Districts, which, he said, could be a benefit for students.
In asking the audience for their votes, Mr. Reid said, if elected City Clerk, one of the things he would work toward is getting more people to vote. “We need to change our approach as to how we’re reaching out to folks.”
Ald. Wynne said, “During my time on the City Council, I have worked hard to be respectful of everyone in the City of Evanston, to be an advocate, to be an ombudsman, to respect my Ward. I have worked to defend the lakefront, to make sure it stays commercial-free and open to all.” She said she had helped to transform Chicago Avenue from a street of car-sales lots into a street where people come to shop. Her leadership and her understanding of policy are attributes she feels qualify her to continue as Third Ward Alderman.
Mr. Block said, “I’m running to put our progressive values to work. We should be leading – a pilot City. This is one of the greatest places to live.”
“I’ll echo that sentiment that too many people feel disconnected,” said Mr. Morgan “I would talk to my constituents, organize my community, and find their concerns and address them at City Council.”