GovHR US President Heidi Vorhees answers questions at the Jan. 28 Evanston City Council meeting about what she might cover in her initial discussion with aldermen, originally scheduled for executive session.

Evanston City Council members pulled back from a closed-door meeting with the head of GovHR USA, the executive search firm chosen to find the City’s next City Manager, after an alderman questioned the basis for the meeting and why it would not be held in public.

Council members were close to ending their regular session Jan. 27 and heading into the closed-door executive session when Alderman Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, asked for clarification from Mayor Stephen Hagerty and City legal staff why the City Manager recruitment process was not part of open discussion.

Responding, Mayor Hagerty noted that the meeting was the first with GovHR USA, since the Northbrook-based firm’s selection Jan. 13 to conduct the search process.

“And I wanted the body [the City Council] that is ultimately going to select the City Manager to have a conversation about this personnel matter in executive session –  including all of the methods the Council wants to use for public input – which, again, there will be significant public input into this process,” the Mayor said.

Ald. Suffredin asked the mayor whether “This is your sole decision – to put this into executive session?”

“Yes,” responded the Mayor. “I think this is a personnel matter, hiring the City Manager, and I know we need to get this [the search] going.”

City Clerk Devon Reid also entered into the conversation, expressing concern that the matter did not qualify as executive- session material.

Illinois law narrowly defines under what circumstances a  public body may elect to hold a closed door discussion, essentially limiting the areas to real estate, negotiations and personnel matters. Personnel in this case refers to the appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, performance or dismissal of specific employees.

“Specific” is set out in italics in a guide to the Open Meetings Act written by former Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

In this instance, “there isn’t a person,” Mr. Reid said at the Jan. 27 meeting.

“It is a personnel manner,” the Mayor said. “It is our City Manager.”

Mayor Hagerty said, “I certainly don’t want to jeopardize the City and put us in a bad situation,” expressing hope that the GovHR USA representative could let officials know whether there are legal challenges in such situations.

Some other Council members sought to explain the process to allay concerns.

At an executive session, “it’s an internal discussion with the Council,” said Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward.  “The vote always takes place in public. So I just think it is a point of information. I don’t want anyone to think that somehow we are cooking up something that will eventually not come up to the public.”

Ald. Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, also said later, “We’re not trying to hide anything. This is the way we’ve done it in the past.

“Those of us on the Council when Wally [Bobkiewicz, the City’s previous City Manager] was hired – I remember those discussions very, very well, especially the initial discussions,” she said, “and they would not have been appropriate for a public session.”

Ald. Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, sought to clarify with GovHR USA President Heidi Vorhees, sitting in the audience at the open meeting, whether any specific individuals would be discussed at the executive session.

“Sometimes that comes up in discussions with elected officials,” said Ms. Vorhees, former Village Manager for Wilmette, noting she she has been through the process a number of times. “Sometimes the conversation veers into performance discussions about previous city managers and veers into discussions of potential candidates. It’s really hard for me to predict in which direction the conversation might go.”

At Ald. Wilson’s direction, Council members agreed to hold over the matter to get direction from legal staff on exactly what could be discussed at an executive session. The advice should include “how far we can go with that conversation, not getting into conversations about individuals,” Ald. Wilson said.

Ald.  Suffredin said he could see a time during the process when aldermen might have to go into executive session.

But the issue, with approval of the search firm just last week, is not at that stage right now.

“I don’t understand why this isn’t a public discussion,” Ald. Suffredin said.

To Ald. Wilson’s question why he had not raised his concerns earlier, Ald. Suffredin noted that when the agenda was first released for the Jan. 27 meeting, it said only “personnel” for the discussion at the executive session.

He said that until Interim City Manager Erika Storlie sent an email the night before the meeting, noting that GovHR USA would be on the agenda, “we had no idea what ‘personnel’ meant,” he said.

 Further, “Executive session is a ‘may;” it’s not a must,” under Illinois law, he noted, “particularly when there’s no confidentiality. We’re not even talking about a person. We’re talking about a position who is the CEO of an entire City. It’s appropriate that the public be here for that discussion, especially when we say we’re trying to be transparent.”

City Council members voted 6-2 Jan. 13 to authorize staff to move forward on a contract with GovHR USA. The vote followed a contentious process, with some aldermen pushing for the City to include search firms beyond GovHR USA, whose executive team includes several former Evanston officials.

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.