Evanston almost did not have a City Manager search but now that it’s back on, residents are participating enthusiastically in the process, raising questions and pointing out the qualities they would like to see in the City’s next top executive.

At a fast-moving Sixth Ward community meeting aired over Google Meet on June 29, residents expressed hope that issues such as  transparency, diversity, consensus building skills would be addressed in the search for candidates during the process.

Alderman Thomas Suffredin, 6th, Ward, presided over the meeting with Heidi Vorhees, the president and co-owner of GovHR USA, the firm with which the City has contracted to do the nationwide search.

Ald. Suffredin argued in support of public participation in the process when it appeared the Mayor and a group of aldermen might shelve the search and elevate Interim City Manager Erika Storlie to the top position at the May 26 City Council meeting.

Though the focus is often on the mayor and aldermen, who are elected to their positions, “the reality is a lot of the day-to-day things that you experience as a resident are more in the domain of the City Manager and the staff under the City Manager’s direction,” Ald. Suffredin said at the June 29 meeting, “than the people that you elect, so that’s why this is a really important hire.”

 Michael Vasilko, the first speaker and a critic of City decisions on the new Robert Crown Community Center financing and other measure in the past, asked Ms. Vorhees about accountability. “How do we ensure that the new City Manager will be accountable to the citizens of Evanston?”

In the past, “a lot of things” have been done “behind the scenes,” he said, and “citizens don’t really get to influence the City Manager’s decision. So how do we accomplish that?”

To that concern, Ms. Vorhees said, “One of the things that we would look for is how the candidates have engaged within their communities in the past. I think the best way to understand how somebody is going to act in the future is to ascertain how they’ve done it in the past.  So when do they engage with the community, on what type of topics, how do they do that?

“We cannot only get their word for it,” she said, “but we can check through the media, through reference calls and other ways to ensure that it is a genuine and transparent decision process that they use.

“Community engagement is a big part of this role and I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be a part of it,” she said, speaking to the City’s reputation. “I think I can go out on a limb and say that Evanston would want that.”

“I hope you’re right,” Mr. Vasilko responded.

Andy Lafond, another participant, referred to the issues arising out of the Black Lives Matter movement, and said he agreed with Ald. Suffredin’s assessment of the City Manager position, as one where the person filling the role could “help the Council and mayor identify opportunities for change in a positive sense.”

Mr. Lafond said diversity should also be an important consideration, “making sure we have candidates, including people of color, women, people who have diverse backgrounds. Just having that representation and diversity within City government as much as possible is helpful in effecting change.”

Overall, “the City Manager profession is not particularly diverse,” responded Ms. Vorhees, “with only about 8% City managers who are black, and about 13 to 15% percent who are women. It’s just not a diverse world in local government, which is really a sad state of affairs in that regard. But we will work hard to bring a diverse pool of candidates.”

She said GovHR is active with a lot of organizations that represent diversity in local government, helping lead the firm to candidates who could potentially be available.

She said the firm will look at all the candidates and evaluate them against the standards, ultimately received from the Mayor and City Council. In addition, the firm will take into account the information gathered at meetings, such that one, as well as through a survey running on the City’s website (cityofevanston.org), asking residents what qualities they would like to see in the next City Manager.

Sharon Kushiner, spoke of the “complex environment” the City Manager works in and suggested that “it would be really important to look at their track record of all they’ve navigated when there are different major differences of opinion.”

Ms. Vorhees said that the candidates’ ability to navigate through issues is something the firm regularly asks.

Ms. Kushiner said her concern in that regard is “it just seems there has been a significant number of people in Evanston that haven’t necessarily been listened to, and I’m specifically talking about the Black community. There are just a lot of voices that have not been heard over the years, and I would be interested in seeing someone come in who has the ability to listen and understand … and start incorporating the voices of people who haven’t necessarily been heard.”

Several speakers, including Patrick Fowler, the owner of the City’s popular Firehouse Grill, asked about economic challenges facing the City in the post-COVID-19 era and whether skills in that area would also be something officials would be looking for in the process.

Ms. Vorhees said GovHr has talked to candidates about those issues in other searches the firm has conducted. “Neighborhood economic development is a challenge that a lot of communities face, so that when we talk to candidates about economic development, it’s not just about downtown, but it’s about how do they approach development in neighborhoods – particularly when it can be neighborhood specific.”

Ald. Suffredin noted that the Sixth Ward’s business district competes with downtown Wilmette, what that village calls its “Village Center.”

“One of the things I hear often and I understand entirely is [someone saying], “you know, I can go to Wilmette, park for free, and go to all these shops that are very similar to what we have on Central Street and not have to worry about parking,” he said. 

That can be “a threshold issue for a lot of people when they decide whether or not to go to lunch on Central Street or in Wilmette,” he said.

“One of the challenges for the [next] City Manager and one of the reasons why it’s important for all of us,” he said, “is this person is going to have to figure out what works best for various parts of the City on various economic issues.”

The Central Street situation is just one small example of that, he said.

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.