Evanston City Council members are sticking with a local firm that includes several former City insiders among its top officers to conduct the search for the City’s next City Manager, despite concerns raised by some about the process.

Aldermen voted 6-2 Jan. 13 to authorize staff to move forward on a $35,000 contract with Northbrook-based GovHR USA.

The executive search firm includes several former Evanston officials on its executive team. 

JoEllen J. Cademartori, the City’s former Human Resources Director, serves as GOV HR USA’s CEO, and Grant Farrar, the City’s former Corporation Counsel, is listed as the company’s Senior Vice President.

Back in September, staff initially recommended that the City contract with GovHR without interviewing other search firms, citing the firm’s performance in the hiring of others for City posts and the need to get moving on the search for a successor for City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.

Mr. Bobkiewicz, who held the post since 2009, stepped down from his position to become the top administrator in Issaquah, Washington, effective Sept. 27 of last year.

At the City Council’s Administration & Public Works (A&PW) Committee meeting Oct. 28, Aldermen Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward; Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward; and Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, voted against a proposal to enter into a contract with GovHR, arguing other top firms should be brought in for interviews.

Council members then agreed to include two other firms for interviews — Cincinnati, Ohio-based Novak Consulting and Norcross, Georgia-based Slavin Management Consultants, along with GovHR.

The firms were interviewed on Dec. 13, reported Jennifer Lin, the City’s Human Resources Division Manager, in a Jan. 13 memo.

“The City Council members that participated in the interview process recommended approval to contract GovHR USA to conduct the search for Evanston’s next City Manager,” she wrote, listing a number of reasons, including the fact that the recruiters are local and “have extensive experience in local Illinois government.”

At the Jan. 13 A&PW meeting, though, Ald. Fleming maintained that the memo was misleading. 

Ald. Fleming participated in the interview process and GovHr was not her choice.

“It would have been nice if she [Ms. Lin] respected my opinion enough to ask what I thought, so it could be reflected in the memo,” she said.

“We aldermen all left the interviews at the same time,” she said in a follow-up comment. “The meeting ran late, so we decided not to debrief at that time. I can’t remember what was said [by staff], but I assumed we would be asked about our recommendations at a later time, or we would talk about [it] at Council, so when the memo said we’d decided on something I was shocked and frustrated.”

Ms. Lin was not at the Jan. 13 meeting and could not be reached for clarification the next day.

Fielding the question at the meeting, though, Deputy City Manager Kimberly Richardson, who staffs the A&PW Committee, said that of those present for the interview process, [the majority] favored moving forward with GovHR.

“At the end of the day,” she stressed, “it was still up to the Council to make the final decision on the issue.”

Ald. Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, asked staff a more basic question.

“Why is this [the issue] back here? This Committee already voted no on GovHR,” he said, referring to the Committee’s earlier vote on GovHR, preventing the issue from moving out of Committee.

He also asked Ms. Richardson, “Why is staff pushing GovHR so hard?”

Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th, who took part in the interviews, maintained that GovHR was “head and shoulders, to the Nth degree, above the others.”

Even “if we had blindfolds on and had not been able to see who we were talking to, it would have been the same way,” she said.

This time, Committee members voted in support of sending the issue to the Council for approval, with Ald. Rue Simmons joining the majority.

In previous discussions, Ald. Simmons had opposed contracting with GovHR, noting the firm’s lack of minority makeup as reflected on its website.

Explaining her shift, she said, “When I got the invitation to participate [in the interview session], I replied, ‘As long as we have a person of color and a woman on this small committee, I would trust my colleagues to make the best decision for our City,’” she said at the A&PW Committee, “and it seems as we went through that process, that we had a majority that was in support of GovHr. From what I’ve seen we’ve had good candidates come from their work in the past.”

GovHR “has a niche in executive searches in Illinois,” Ms. Lin said in her memo. “The recruiters are local and have extensive experience in local Illinois government. They are familiar with local community standards and expectations for city administrators.”

The City of Evanston has used GovHR on numerous occasions, she noted, including in successful searches for Police Chief and several department-head positions.

“The geographical proximity of recruiters is important,” Ms. Lin wrote. “Because GovHR is local, the City can more easily engage with the recruiters. Meeting in person or on short notice is less problematic and will incur fewer expenses. In-person availability for community meetings will be more manageable and reasonable.”

Aldermen voted 6-2 in favor of the contract with GovHr. Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, was absent, and Aldermen Suffredin and Fleming cast the lone dissenting votes.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.