We were stunned by Mayor Stephen Hagerty’s proposition at the May 25 City Council meeting to suspend the nationwide search for a new City Manager and hire Interim City Manager Erika Storlie as City Manager.
The Mayor hinged his proposal on the agenda item for an update on the search for the new City Manager, asking for action on an item of importance to the entire community with absolutely no notice to the public that even such a discussion was in store for the meeting. More alarming, perhaps was the alacrity with which several aldermen chimed in their support.
The reasons advanced to scuttle the nationwide search and renege on the promise to Evanston residents of a public and transparent search process were not compelling.
First, if it is a matter of economy – and we believe it is not – the comparative savings of about $20,000 is relatively meaningless. Next, we feel many people could be willing to leave a present job to come to Evanston for many reasons, and none of them would necessarily label the person as a “traitor,” – as the Mayor would have it.
There are many reasons a person would relinquish his or her current job to be City Manager here. True, we have our challenges and difficulties – and there are likely to be more in the coming months – but Evanston is an outstanding place to live.
The COVID-19 pandemic is devastating families, businesses and communities, making a move to another place – to be close to family, for example – more attractive than it might have been a few months ago.
Further, in this pandemic, it has been governors who took the lead. Mayors, city managers and other municipal officials have followed their state leaders. Someone who leaves a city or village office at this time is less a “traitor” than a follower.
The City Council stood by our previous City Manager for almost two years while he was actively looking for another job. Some Council members even extended or wanted to extend the contract so he would not be without salary during his move.
The process of hiring a City Manager constitutes a referendum on the previous one. Ms. Storlie is a successor to her predecessor, Wally Bobkiewicz, and his legacy is what she brings to the table.
Were a legitimate search process to take place, residents would have the opportunity to say whether this is the legacy upon which they wish to build our City’s future or if new leadership is needed.
They would have a chance to bring into the dialogue their feeling about the summary firing of the Community Services Manager over a few parking tickets – some not even incurred by his staff – that he paid for with his City-issued credit card, with no objections at the time from anyone at the City.
They could talk about the millions of dollars spent on the wasteful lawsuit over purported possible contamination of water in and around James Park, the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on lawsuits brought by former employees, and the draconian parking fines, fees and policies that make Evanston ever less attractive to would-be visitors and patrons.
Residents would also be able to point at the ways our City has burgeoned in recent years: successful tax-increment districts (TIFs) retired, downtown Evanston invigorated with new residential structures and a revamped Fountain Square, Howard Street revitalized, a new Robert Crown Center with an ice complex and a library branch, an emphasis on the environment with bike lanes, plug-in stations for electric cars and a climate resilience plan.
The precipitous favoritism toward Ms. Storlie and patronizing brush-off of the public have also put Ms. Storlie in a difficult position. Residents who might have supported her being hired as City Manager, now forced to choose between her and the promised public process, will likely opt for transparency rather than a false expediency. If Council votes to hire Ms. Storlie despite the reservations expressed by many residents and some few Council members, they are offering her a position that is marred at the beginning.
We ask that Council members rethink their recent actions and slow down this process. Even though many decisions have been made for residents during the State-mandated lockdown, we residents are still able to think and make many decisions on our own. Hiring a new City Manager is not something that has to be done immediately and in the dark but publicly and with resident input – as was promised.
One option would be to extend time: Extend the time frame of the search. Extend Ms. Storlie’s contract as Interim City Manager so she can prove herself without the shadows of her predecessor or an overbearing City Council.
We residents of Evanston deserve at least that much.