Speaking from his office in a far corner of Morton Civic Center, Steve Hagerty, who was elected to his post in April 2017, said that he’s learning that being mayor of Evanston is akin to being a chairman of the board.
“The governing board is the City Council – they’re the ones who have the vote,” Mayor Hagerty said one morning late in August. “The city manager is sort of the chief executive officer or chief operating officer, running the day-to-day operations of the city. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to determine, ‘How do I make my voice my vote? Because I don’t have a vote.’”
Mayor Hagerty had only been on the job a few months and was still learning the ropes at that point, he said. He’d biked to work that morning – it was unseasonably cool for late summer – and was looking ahead to the day’s appoint-ments. The Evanston’s mayor’s office is a relatively modest space that can easily be missed from the hallway. Mayor Hagerty had not yet done much by way of decoration.
Making the transition from the private-sector into municipal government required numerous adjustments for Mayor Hagerty, his business’ employees and his family. Those adjustments, however, were reinforced by solid principles about community service he’s long subscribed to.
Mayor Hagerty came into office after a lengthy career as an emergency-management consultant. He opened his business, Hagerty Consulting, when he and his family moved to Evanston in 2001. Among their myriad projects, the firm managed the federal government’s public assistance fund after the Sept. 11 attacks and worked in cleanup efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“I am not very involved in the day-to-day operations with Hagerty Consulting,” he said. “I’m much more involved in the day-to-day operations of the City of Evanston. I have a great team. For me, success with my business over the past few years was based on my company being a sustainable, growing business without my day-to-day involvement.”
Hagerty Consulting’s former executive vice-president, William “Brock” Long, was nominated by President Donald Trump in April 2017 to head up the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in June 2017, Mayor Hagerty noted.
“While he was a key person in the company, he didn’t have a whole lot of operational responsibility,” he said. “We’ve got eight good people there, who’ve been with me for a long time, and who are properly incentivized
to help grow and build the business.”
Being mayor requires being very conscious of the role that position plays in the city’s political life, he added. “I’m very respectful of the type of government that we have here, and our charter, a city-management form.”
The toughest learning curves he said he has faced have included grasping zoning rules and “all sorts of police-processes – an ‘arrest,’ a ‘charge,’ a ‘warrant’ – all of those issues have come up. Water utilities are also a big deal around here. We have a terrific water department here, which sells water to other places. Those are three areas where I’m trying to spend extra time and get smarter. I’m a little more comfortable in the financial side of stuff that I read and see, just because of the things that I’ve done before.”
Having some knowledge of finance is especially useful when trying to address the city’s $4.2 million deficit and the logistics of covering the costs of municipal operations.
“It’s frustrating,” Mayor Hagerty said. “How we’re covering that deficit is a lot of transfers, in and out of accounts. I understand what’s being done, and at the end of the day, it’s still $4.2 million less. We don’t make or print money here – the vast majority of people don’t understand what’s happening with that. Evanston’s not unique – it’s the way cities are set up. There are 50 different funds, and all those funds have certain purposes, with negative or positive balances. By no means am I an expert in that, but I’m paying attention to it. I think you should try to understand the mechanics of how these things work.”
Shifting to a mayor’s mindset from a business-owner’s mindset was not that difficult, he added. “Part of the reason was, [the transition] was underway for several years. My community activities, whether it was the [Youth & Opportunities United] board, the Chamber or First Bank & Trust, had me involved in a lot of things. … I haven’t found that transition to be that difficult. The more challenging transition has been balancing all the commitments between this job and my family.”
Mayor Hagerty noted that the biggest surprise he’s experienced on the job was how open-meetings rules can serve as a hindrance to collegiality. Potential gatherings with colleagues on the council often would necessitate publishing a public-meetings notice; he and some alder-men had once casually gathered in the aldermanic library and were chastised for doing business behind closed doors.
He explained, “I can’t invite the City Council over to my house and say, ‘Why don’t we have a beer together,’ because, in any well-functioning organization, you do that kind of stuff. Because in order for us to do business together, we actually have to trust one another and be comfortable with one another. That doesn’t happen oftentimes in government because of the laws that we set up, for well- intentioned reasons, for complete sun-shine. But the reality is, I can’t meet with more than
two council members at any given time … I’ve never been in elected office before, and [never seen] how that adversely affects the level of collegiality and trust that
can otherwise develop.”
Mayor Hagerty said that his wife, Lisa Altenbernd, had always been civically active, and his children, Caroline and Garrett, are becoming increasingly so. He recalled watching the August 2017 solar eclipse with his family in front of Evanston Public Library.
“They are now in settings where they see their dad wearing this ‘mayor hat,’ which to me is important as a parent who cares about civic engagement. I want my kids to grow seeing that it’s important to be involved in the community through the work that I do. … Like a lot of families in Evanston, we’re an active family, and with my being mayor, more falls upon them, which isn’t easy.”
He recalled that, initially, Ms. Altenbernd was “on the fence” over whether he should run for mayor, but then, “One day, she said, ‘I thought about it, and I’m okay if you want to run.’ You have to realize, my wife also has this idea of the importance of civic engagement. She has a master’s in public administration as well. In terms of the family conversations we’ve had, most of it is built around this concept of service to others.”
Mayor Hagerty added that he and Ms. Altenbernd “try to raise our children with this concept that it’s important to give back. That doesn’t mean you have to run for elected office. There are lots of ways to give back, as lots of families and residents in our community do.”
Among Mayor Hagerty’s deepest priorities in office, he said, are “good, solid financial management of the city, and having a deeper and thoughtful plan for affordable housing in Evanston.” He regularly consults the city’s former mayors for advice towards those ends, he added. “Just yesterday, I was on the phone with Mayor [Elizabeth] Tisdahl; I wanted her perspective on something.”
His work in emergency-management provided much of the inspiration for his decision to run for elected office, he noted. “For 24 years, I worked with lots of families after disasters, and I found that to be incredibly rewarding. Helping people on their worst day is at least a good way to wake up, knowing that you are making a difference. Helping people in the community I actually live in was appealing to me, and that’s why I wanted to run for mayor.”
He admitted, however, that after only a few months in his new job, he hasn’t been hit by those same waves of satisfaction, which he suspects will be a more gradual process.
“My premise is that I will experience that, over four years,” Mayor Hagerty said, laughing. “Time will tell.”
Matt Simonette is a writer for the RoundTable and an editor at the Windy City Times.