The water pumping station controversy and Dodge Avenue bike lanes were among the issues on Evanstonians’ minds at an April 3 town hall meeting held by Mayor Stephen Hagerty at the Levy Center.
Those two items dominated the discussion, which found some residents complaining of a lack of transparency in City decision-making. Issues ranging from local zoning controversies and streetlights were also touched upon.
Mayor Hagerty opened the session by announcing that the state of the City is generally good, but that Evanston, as in recent years, faces significant challenges with its upcoming 2019 budget, which officials project would have about a $3 million deficit. That deficit is largely the result of “external forces” the City cannot control, the Mayor added, among them a reduction in State payments and a significant pension liability.
As such, City officials and staff will begin a “priority-based” budgeting process. The first step would be isolating and “internally grading” the 250 to 275 overall City services and obligations, and further ranking the scope and necessity of the bottom third of those priorities. The results of the official determinations would be submitted to the City Council on April 30, he added.
Mayor Hagerty further emphasized that the undertaking would be performed with an “equity lens,” so that recommendations would not just automatically target services utilized mainly by poorer Evanstonians. He also said that the extended timeframe in the budget analysis would allow for community input.
“We’ll take that out to the community in the month of May, and we’ll get a sense of whether we’re right or not,” he said.
The Mayor was asked why he had resisted a “participatory budgeting” process for Northwestern University’s million-dollar Good Neighbor Fund payment to the City. He responded that residents choosing to take part in such a process could no better reflect the overall needs of the City as a whole than communicating with their elected officials.
But that stance – that City council members and the Mayor are duly elected and residents should count on them to carry out their duties and communicate with constituents – was challenged by some in the audience, especially those concerned about the pumping station and bike lanes, leading to some moments of frustration.
One audience member who lived near the proposed pumping station asked, “What recourse do we have when our elected officials don’t listen to us?”
The resident added that both his alderman and the Mayor had ignored emails he had sent about the pumping station and that “there were lies and half-truths done by City government … in order to rush the process through.”
The Mayor suggested that the man could file a Freedom of Information Act request in order to obtain records that might show whether the City had gone through proper channels in communicating residents. The man answered that he had already done so and the request had been stalled since February.
“They haven’t been filled yet,” he said. “That’s against federal law.”
Later in the meeting, Mayor Hagerty addressed the concern that possible loss of property values due to proximity to the pumping station – called “diminution” – was not a given, especially since there would be park space in the location.
A similar frustration with an alleged lack of transparency was expressed by South Evanston residents who have objected to bike lakes placed on Dodge Avenue, which they maintain have seriously impeded visibility for residents pulling out of east-west side streets. One audience member presented Mayor Hagerty with a photo of a serious March 5 accident at Dodge Avenue and Mulford Street that resulted in a car rolling over.
“We need to have these bike lanes changed back to what they were,” the audience member said.
Another member opposing the bike lanes asked, “What is it going to take for the City to get rid of those bike lanes? … Is it going to take someone getting killed?”
Mayor Hagerty answered that the City had heard many complaints about the lanes and would consult with transportation officials over the matter.
But after he emphasized that the lanes had gone through a development process with officials and residents, a resident later said, “We did have meetings, where absolutely no one listened to what we said.”
Kiera Kelly, who has been a vocal opponent to a number of residential developments in downtown Evanston, asked whether Mayor Hagerty would support a codified development plan. Opponents to local projects have maintained that the City has not followed its own 2009 development plan, and that zoning variances have seemingly been requested at random, without considering the plan.
“None of us wants a showdown on every new development that comes up,” she said.
Mayor Hagerty noted that the 2009 plan was never officially codified, adding that, “As much as I’m into the value of plans, by value of [City Council members who residents elect]… the ‘Evanston way’ has been to take it project by project.”