Evanston Mayor Stephen Hagerty pushed for elevation of Interim City Manager Erika Storlie to the top position at the May 26 City Council meeting.

With Evanston Mayor Stephen Hagerty’s advancing the idea, some aldermen voiced support for shelving a nationwide search for a new City Manager at the May 26 City Council meeting and elevating Interim City Manager Erika Storlie immediately  to the City’s top administrative position.

Mr. Hagerty proposed the idea as aldermen were to receive an update on the search for a new City Manager. Wally Bobkiewicz, City Manager for nearly 10 years, left the position in September to take the top administrator post in Issaquah, Wash.

Ms. Storlie, then Assistant City Manager, was appointed Interim City Manager while the City moved forward on a nationwide search.

The proposal to hire Ms. Storlie was not on the agenda for the meeting, and there was no advance warning to the public when Mr. Hagerty proposed the Council move forward on hiring Ms. Storlie.

Earlier this year, the City had contracted with a search firm, GovHR USA, to conduct a search for a new City Manager, laying out a process for full citizen participation.

Proposing the City hire Ms. Storlie, Mr. Hagerty cited the job she has done leading the City “putting in place a responsible budget for 2020 that reflects the City’s priorities and values, responding to the pandemic and effectively managing labor relations.

“I feel strongly that we need a permanent leader of the City now,” he said. “Very difficult decisions must be made and everyone ought to know that the permanent leader is at the helm, making those decisions. Given the pandemic, a national search will be reduced to selecting a City Manager or a deputy that is willing to leave their jurisdiction in the midst of a crisis. That is not the type of person I want to be the City Manager.”

Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, and Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, were among those speaking in support of the move. “I’ve always been a big proponent of what I call developing local talent,” Ald. Wilson said. “And that’s how you get to know somebody, that’s how you get somebody to know you. And obviously Erika Storlie has been with the organization for some time and has really demonstrated a solid understanding of the community I think the best person has worked their way up through the ranks and is in front of us, so I agree with you, Mayor.”

 Council members turned to the City’s Corporation Counsel Kelley Gandurski, who was hired by Ms. Storlie earlier this year, on the legality of hiring Ms. Storlie at the meeting.

Ms. Gandurski said she did not see any rules prohibiting such a discussion. As for actual hiring, someone would make a proposal for an appointment, and then seven votes would be needed for the measure to go through.

In terms of a national search, “there’s nothing in our codes that require us to do a search,” she said.

Aldermen Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, Melissa Wynn, 3rd Ward, Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, and Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, were among the  Council members to speak against the move, suggesting the measure would not command the seven votes to hire Ms. Storlie on the spot.

Alderman Suffredin asked about the status of a community survey the City was to move forward with, seeking resident feedback on the characteristics and traits they would like to see in the next City Manager.

“I just want to note that one of the things in the header of the survey is “’We value your input,’” he said.

While Ms. Storlie might have done a credible job, “what about Kevin Brown?” he asked, referring to the Ms. Storlie’s firing Community Services Manager over having paid three staff parking tickets, a measure he said had been signed off by senior staff.

Ald. Fleming noted, “We are getting very accustomed to handle anything virtually,” suggesting the same could be done in going about the search for a new City Manager. “There are a variety of ways we can get input from our constituents and have whoever is interested come forward (through) the public process. And then, again, if we don’t find anyone or we decided at the end of the day that Erika is the best candidate, we can at least tell our constituents we have gone through a very public process, one that they’ve had an opportunity to engage in.”

“Not having a public discussion at all with residents is inappropriate,” said Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, “and I’m hoping that before we make any further decisions we come up with a process where we can at least get some feedback.”

The Council members supporting the move pulled back on the proposal and agreed to put the item up for introduction at the June 8 City Council meeting.

Mayor Hagerty defended the proposal, citing the length of a search. “Right now I think we have a great candidate here.”  He also said, “I don’t want anybody right now that’s willing to leave their community in the midst  of a crisis.”

Responded Ald. Suffredin, “this is not about what you want. This is not your hire. This is about 75,000 people.”

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.