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In the season’s first mayoral debate, candidates Lori Keenan and Sebastian Nalls raised concerns about candidate Daniel Biss’s backing by some current City Council members, with Ms. Keenan also questioning his lack of involvement in local issues.
Mr. Biss countered that his backing is broad-based and that, as a State legislator, he worked on a number of issues that brought benefits to the City.
The candidates faced off Jan. 7 in the first mayoral forum of the election year. The Central Street Neighbors Association sponsored the event, which saw the candidates responding to a wide range of questions.
The candidates are pressing to get their platforms in front of the public in what could be a short election season.
With more than two candidates running, the race will go to a primary vote on Feb. 23. If one candidate receives 50% of the votes plus one vote at that time, he or she will be declared mayor.
If however, no candidates obtain that figure, the top two finishers will runoff for the office in the General Consolidated Election April 6.
At the forum, sponsored by the Central Street Neighbors Association, both Ms. Keenan, a grassroots activists, and Mr. Nalls, 20, a lifelong Evanston resident and Purdue University student, raised concerns about Mr. Biss’s endorsement by some of the current Evanston City Council members, who have come under fire for their lack of transparency, most notably in their handling of the City Manager hiring this past year.
Responding to a question from moderator Jeff Smith about restoring transparency in government, Ms. Keenan maintained that “I think it starts at the top. And I think we need new leadership. I don’t see that happening with the candidate that’s been endorsed by the entire sitting Council. I don’t see change happening in that capacity, and that worries me.”
Mr. Nalls raised his concern about the support behind Mr. Biss in a comment about revamping the zoning system to ensure more compatible development and the need to bring the City Council on board.
In that regard, he noted that Mr. Biss has been endorsed by “multiple candidates – multiple incumbent candidates on the City Council who have allowed this process to take place.”
Responding to the charges, Mr. Biss, a State legislator representing Evanston and other communities from 2011 to 2019, noted that the Council itself is “pretty contentious – there’s been a lot of fighting and arguing back and forth. And what you’ll see on my supporter list is people on all sides of those divides. You see people who voted for the recent budget and people who voted against the recent budget. You see people who have voted for and against many of the most controversial things.”
Both sides “are on my supporter list,” he said, “and I’m proud to have a very, very broad diverse base of support from people, many of whom disagree with each other passionately about things. I think that’s a strength of this campaign – it shows my ability to bring people together and solve problems.”
During the debate, Ms. Keenan also maintained that Mr. Biss should have been more involved in the community. “I think in his capacity as legislator you could do that and he did so in that capacity, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him speak or been involved in a local issue and I think that matters.”
On the matter of the Harley Clarke mansion, Ms. Keenan, one of the leaders in a movement to save the building, maintained that while Mr. Biss is on record as saying he signed a petition for the citizen referendum against the City demolishing the mansion, “there were a lot of people doing a lot more than that. We heard and got the support of [State Representative] Robyn Gabel, we got the support of [Congresswoman] Jan Schakowsky, we got the support of many others, Landmarks Illinois, the Preservation Commission,” she maintained. “So when we asked Daniel Biss for his support on Harley Clarke, he wouldn’t get in the conversation.”
Mr. Biss, asked by Mr. Smith for a response, said “I think this is really a disappointing point of attack. I’m puzzled by it. Lori has a track record of involvement in the community that she’s running on and she should be proud of. I have a track record of different involvement in the community and that I’m proud of. And somehow the notion that the work that I’ve done – whether it was directly partnering with the City on legislation to save money for the City on economic development, or on diversifying the Fire Department, or on wind energy offshore – whether it’s those direct partnerships with the City, or just passing legislation in Springfield that helped people in Evanston with retirement security, helping LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] youth with their civil rights, helping women’s reproductive freedom – the notion to me that isn’t somehow sticking up for our community, it just seems wrong.”
Asked about his own involvement in local issues, Mr. Nalls, a junior at Purdue University, taking time off from his studies, to pursue a run for the mayor’s seat, said “I’ve been out there in public comment, as limited as it might be. Be of mind that I am 20. When I was 17, I was not going to public comment. I was in high school. But I’ve been trying to do the best that I can to stay up to date with whatever’s going on in the City of Evanston. … During this campaign I’ve been out in the community. When getting signatures, I was out going door- to-door, or talking to people, having those genuine conversations … [trying to] understand the problems that they [residents] had. And I think that’s exactly what we need in the office of mayor. … We need a mayor that their priorities, first and foremost, are listening to the concerns of the community. And once we can establish that, that’s when we can have true accountability.”
Mr. Smith led the candidates through a wide range of issues at the nearly two-hour forum, which was held virtually because of social distancing concerns. Some of the issues discussed:
- The new Robert Crown Community Center, located at Main Street and Dodge Avenue, about which some residents have raised concerned about the exorbitant cost:
Ms. Keenan: “I do not think the Robert Crown was a good use of money I also think it’s sort of a mock transparency example, too. We were told that there were public meetings – the budget on Robert Crown increased, at least doubled from what they initially set.
“Now we’ve got $53 million in bond debt on the backs of the taxpayers who are being priced out of town. I think that when we’re building rec centers with two full-sized NHL-sized hockey rinks in them that we can’t do that, in the name of equity. What’s next? Polo fields? I mean, if you’re going to have a community center, then make it for the community who actually live here. I think it was a wasteful use of tax dollars that we’ll be paying for every year.”
Mr. Biss: “Well I was certainly alarmed to see the price tag go up. Actually, from the first I ever read about it, it well over doubled. I think it was honestly closer to quadruple. I don’t understand why that project was allowed to get as expensive as it was.”
“That said, let’s be clear, the bonds have been issued; the debt is there; the building is there. And now we’d better get the absolute most value out of that asset that we possibly can and make it a community meeting place.
“I think you’ve already referenced the fact that a lot of this has been in the context of discussions about equity and it is in fact a large significant public facility and a part of town where there hasn’t been as much public investment, and so we just need to figure out a way to make the best of it. “But to the direct question: Did that price tag feel right to me? No, that price tag did not feel right to me.”
Mr. Nalls: “I so happened to live by the Robert Crown Center, and I worked at the Parks and Recreation Department in an administrative capacity, while that project was [being built]. So I definitely have my disdain for the project. It is well over budget, or was well over budget, and we see that similar facilities across the nation were done at half of the cost of what we did it here in Evanston. So we have to have real conversations about that going forward.
“Like Daniel just said, ‘What’s done is done.’ We can’t do anything about it; now the bonds have been issued, we’re in the predicament we are now. We just have to set our priorities going forward, making sure that that doesn’t happen again.
“And that includes having accountability. When we bring up large projects in the City, and we have individuals coming to public comment, we need to listen to those concerns, and we need to have those conversations, because those are genuine concerns that residents have that, ‘Hey, this project may be a bit too expensive, or doesn’t fit the neighborhood that it’s going into right now. And once we have those – once we have those questions that are addressed, we work to solve the problem and we ensure that something like that doesn’t happen ever again.”
· What can be done to restore Evanston’s downtown business areas, hit hard by COVID -19:
Mr. Nalls: “I think what needs to be done is first establishing what business owners actually need. And that requires a mayor that will actually go out into the streets and visit those business owners and have that conversation. After talking to so many business owners, they’ve explained that the past administration has largely been absent from their lives, and they feel, as a business owner, there’s no one to turn to.
“So I think establishing what exactly business owners need is something that needs to be done. Once we’ve established that baseline, then we can fix the problems that have going on downtown. … If that’s parking and the affordability of parking … then let’s address that issue.”
Mr. Biss: “There are a few things. First of all, something really important happened two nights ago, which is that it is now, that with the barest of majorities, Democrats will be in control of the House and the Senate and Presidency, starting in 13 days. That changes the opportunity for us to pull down meaningful municipal aid from the federal government in a dramatic way.
“And we need a mayor who’s going to work very, very closely with our federal delegation, with Congressman Schakowsky, as well as Senators Duckworth and Durbin to ensure that whatever they design will involve adequate support for Evanston residents and businesses.
Coming out of the pandemic, “I think more and entities are going to find a location like Evanston, which is, yes, relatively central and transit accessible, but also much less expensive than, for instance, than downtown Chicago.”
Ms. Keenan: I am a small-business owner in Evanston. I also am a public relations and marketing consultant. I have helped businesses open in Evanston I’ve helped beverage businesses; I’ve helped restaurants. I currently work with one of the largest employers in Evanston, and I think that when we’re talking along the lines of what Sebastian said, we need to be listening to the businesses, and what they’re asking for.
“When we’re putting medical offices into retail spaces [the former Barnes & Noble] that isn’t helping our downtown.
“I’m a member of an organization called Strong Towns. We should be looking at best practices used by other communities, and looking at organizations like Democracy Collaborative or the New Urbanist, this movement to redevelop the downtown.
“But when we start to decimate our downtown block after block and put up high rises and make a wind tunnel and have unaffordable parking and aggressive ticketing, I don’t think that that is helping our downtown merchants, or businesses. Inviting people downtown to dance on Thursday nights or painting stripes on the sidewalk, I don’t think that’s helping them either. We need to really listen to what they need.”
· Asked by Mr. Smith if as a small business-owner there was something she would change,
Ms. Keenan responded, “I think our parking is atrocious. And when the current mayor is asking the residents to please come and order from our downtown restaurants, but then we’re also sending parking [people] out to give people tickets, when they’ve [the take-out customers] got their flashers on for two minutes to run into restaurants, that’s not helpful.”
On that question, Mr. Nalls said increasing property taxes is an issue, “and it almost seems that we see an increase almost on a yearly basis in the budget, and that causes rents to rise, especially in the downtown area. And what happens is we have businesses, especially local businesses, that cannot afford to pay the rents that are downtown.
“And then we see vacancies. And what happens is that those [owners of buildings with] vacancies, then get their property taxes reduced because they are vacant and they’re not bringing in any income. So not only are we losing businesses, but we’re also losing property tax revenues. So I think that’s an extremely important thing that we need to talk about here, when we’re talking about bringing back businesses to Evanston.”
Mr. Biss noted that “retail is on a multi-decade, rough patch right now. I mean there’s an apocalypse going on now because of the pandemic, but the impact of online commerce on brick-and-mortar retail has just been relentless.
“I agree that’s not going to change, but I also agree there is a place for brick-and-mortar retail and I think that Evanston has a fondness for it. If you talk to our neighbors about what makes this place home for us, I think, the kind of small locally owned culturally interesting retail establishments are an important part of it.
“And I think we have a desire to support it. So part of what we can do is come together as a community to make sure that we’re helping one another, be aware of opportunities to shop local and support our local businesses.
“I do think the population density is a part of this. There is a population density threshold below which it’s very, very hard to support a lot of local retail; and we do, I think, want a growing population to enable us to support a more robust local business community . But I also think there’s a variety of different phenomena here, and when I was talking about rent comparison, I wasn’t talking so much about storefront retail [but rather] other commercial tenants that, I think, in the wake of the pandemic, are going to be saying, ‘You know, hold on. Maybe I don’t need 5,000 square feet any longer because remote work is so much more part of how I do things. But, you know, 3,000 square feet or more affordable place wouldn’t be so bad.”
- On the City’s reparations program, which calls for revenues from cannabis sales to be used to fund payments to eligible African American residents harmed by past racial injustices, whether it is the best way for the City to attack the problem of racial inequality:
Ms. Keenan: “I think that reparations is a start. And I think it went the way that a lot of things do in Evanston where they said the words and put the process in motion without a real plan. And, even as they’re trying to implement the reparations plan, they’re not listening to what from a national perspective reparations truly is.
“They’re trying to put conditions on what the reparations are and they’re trying to say: ‘You can have this money to put money down for a mortgage, but if people can’t afford their rent or their groceries or, you know, a winter coat for their kids … they’re certainly not thinking about putting money down for a mortgage. So I don’t think true reparations can be given with conditions and I think that’s what the City is trying to do.”
Mr. Biss: Is it [the way the City is proceeding now] literally the best thing? If we had the perfect hindsight to write a plan from scratch, would it have matched this one in every punctuation mark? Maybe not.
“But I think this is absolutely the right thing to do. It is the best use of our money, and just to answer your question directly about, is this appropriate when we have a fiscal crisis, I would say that the purpose of reparations is to repay a debt that was accrued against the will of the person.
“This is not a kind of philosophical kind of ‘Let’s think about the fact that racism is bad.’ This is actual wealth taken away from black families across this country, including in this City because of actions by the City and we owe a debt.”
Mr. Nalls: “Reparations is a good start. And we see that [as] more [marijuana] dispensaries come in, we’ll see more funding of reparations. After talking to some residents who actually qualify for some of these reparations, it seems that the residents only really apply to homeowners. We see that seniors who may be living in senior [housing] or they’re renting, and they just don’t, quite frankly, apply.
“So I think tailoring the reparations programs to those applicants is what we need to do as a City, because we’re here to serve at the pleasure of the residents.”
- · On vacating the Evanston Civic Center at 2100 Ridge Ave., the longtime home of city government, and whether the candidates favor keeping the existing building or moving towards something new.
Mr. Biss: “I think there’s a lot of rumors around town but not a lot of clarity on what’s really on offer, and so I’m certainly not going to say I prefer the status quo to something that I don’t know what is yet. But I’m not itching to move. I think the Civic Center does the job well as far as I’m concerned. And I think it’s really critical that whatever happens, happens with real transparency, clear public input, well in advance of any decision being made, either officially or behind the scenes, because this is a building that a lot of us have a lot of experience in and feel strongly about.”
Mr. Nalls: We’ve seen rumors floating around, like Daniel mentioned earlier. I believe that this is question that honestly should be a referendum, similar to Harley Clarke. It involves a lot of the surrounding neighborhood and the City at large.
“We don’t know what the price tag would be if this would be in cooperation with a private developer, to say, go 50-50 on the building, say half of it affordable housing and half of it being City Hall; or if we want to transform it into a community center and, say, for instance, close Chandler-Newberger, that’s in close proximity. There are so many options on the table, but it’s impossible to make decision right now.”
Ms. Keenan: I think there was a recent referendum for the Civic Center that wasn’t that long ago. I think we’ve spent money on doing work on the Civic Center based on that referendum and I would hate to see us get into another City project that we can’t afford. I would hate to see the Civic Center become another Robert Crown where we’re going to move the Civic Center and we can’t afford to build a space.”
The candidates addressed other issues as well. The debate can be viewed on the Central Street Neighbors site, centralstreetneighbors.com.