Not “whether” but “how” to address the serious issues facing the City was one distinction among the three candidates for Mayor of Evanston at the Jan. 30 League of Women Voters-Evanston Public Library forum.

From left in photo, Sebastian Nalls, Lori Keenan, and Daniel Biss

Daniel Biss, a retired State legislator and at present a consultant for the Energy Foundation, spoke of his ability to forge consensus around issues where there are differing views. He said he understands how certain State programs can benefit the municipalities and that during his time in the legislature he was able to pass laws that helped the Evanston government achieve its goals.

Lori Keenan, who runs her own public relations and marketing firm, said her activism over two decades here has given her a knowledge of the community, its residents, and the issues it faces that will help her address them. She has been active in issues that affect the entire Evanston community and has attended scores of City Council meetings, speaking up at many of them.

Sebastian Nalls, a student at Purdue University, has worked in the City’s Parks and Recreation Department, where he learned at the grassroots level how City government works. He said he had been talking with members of the community for the last several months about issues that concern them. Because he is a student, he said, he will have ample time for one-to-one conversations and community outreach and advocacy.

As is customary with local political forums of the League of Women Voters of Evanston, a member from another League served as moderator.  Jan Flapan of the Chicago League of Women voters posed the questions, which League members selected.  She first called on the candidates in alphabetical order by last name then continued a rotation so each had several opportunities to answer first.

The candidates answered several questions during the hour-long forum, among them questions about economic recovery, affordable housing, police services, and City assets. Excerpts of their answers are found below, in the order in which each candidate spoke.

Question: Part 1) What do you think the City should be doing in the first years of your term to repair the public health and economic damage? Part 2) How will you work with City staff and City Council in the longer-term economic development?

Mr. Nalls: (Part 1): “I think the first step is going in and actually talking to business owners, and seeing exactly what their wants and needs are. And I believe that it’s important that if we establish a line of communication between small businesses across Evanston and local government, then businesses that are looking to come to Evanston, to expand their reach will recognize that there’s a local government that is working for those businesses, that their problems and their needs are being met. The second [step] is coming up with new fresh ideas about how to spur economic development. Throwing money at a problem is not always the answer. One of the ideas that we’ve come up with is closing the downtown area on Sherman to allow small businesses to come out during the summer months and just have individuals come from all over Evanston. Come in shop, go to restaurants, and just spend time outdoors with the community.

(Part 2): One of the problems that Evanston has had over the years is that we have this “kick the can down the road” mantra that we are just deferring year after year. The problem with the way we’ve been budgeting is that we have lacked direction in terms of an economic development plan. And I believe in the institution of the plan, it would be beneficial to the overall fiscal health of Evanston. We would have a roadmap going forward on how we should spend our dollars on climate change, racial equity, and the various other policies. We can begin to responsibly grow our economics in that instance.

It’s important that we [work with School District 65 and Evanston Township High School] to provide meaningful curriculum for youth growing up, as well as providing young adult transitional programs, so we are preparing the youth, as they grow older to be able to transition into the real world – whether that’s to find a career pathway, the social aspect of transitioning, network, being in leadership, etc.

Mr. Biss: (Part 1) First of all, our goal here needs to be good comeback both stronger and more equitable from this terrible pandemic. There’s the physical health, there’s the social consequences of isolation, and there’s the economic recovery. When it comes to physical health, we need to be as aggressive and transparent as possible about the distribution of the vaccine. … Next, I think we need to acknowledge that there’s a very serious human and social cost to this isolation. And so we need to come together as a community and intentionally to create as many opportunities for people to be together in person and re-strengthen those community bonds. Finally, we have to come back economically stronger than before. Part of that’s going to mean taking advantage of the new shifts in in business patterns and capitalize on some of those changes; part of that means supporting our small businesses in partnership with the federal government; and part of that is coming together as a community to make sure that we’re shopping local, to ensure that we keep these jobs here.

(Part 2): I don’t think we’re going to go back to where we were before this pandemic, in terms of the patterns of where people work and how people work. And in my opinion, that creates an enormous opportunity for Evanston as for example, businesses that are used to thinking that all their employers have to be in the Loop every day from nine to five will start to rethink options. Part of it is to be very clear and strategic about the way we use our extremely limited economic development dollars. I think we’ve been perhaps more haphazard than we ought to be about that. And part of that, and this is really critical, is doing workforce development work with Oakton Community College and the Youth Job Center and the other nonprofits that are already doing that work in town together with businesses in town.

Ms. Keenan:  (Part 1): I understand what COVID has done to our older adult population. But it is also really disenfranchised and really disaffected the Black and Brown population here in Evanston – two very linked – a disproportionate number have been impacted by it. So on both of those sides, I think it’s really going to be important that we come together and try to find solutions. … I think we’re up against some really tough challenges. We’re one of four or five places in the State that’s even distributing vaccinations. So I think we need to help our older adults and prioritize Evanston residents on these decisions and help them get the help they need so that we can all get back to work and back to school.

(Part 2): I think that Evanston has hung its hat on the idea that if we build an end developer downtown, that that is the sort of a one-trick pony for economic development. And that hasn’t worked historically. I think we need to be looking at other models that are doing this already. And let them help us with some of the bright ideas that they’re using. I would really like to look to Northwestern to be able to contribute not just dollars, but also their brainpower – their planning and their people. Let them come to the table with new ideas… Would they like to be involved in something like that? I don’t think that we can continue to solve old problems and post pandemic, to be able to use those initiatives, we need to think creatively and think outside of the box and bring some new fresh blood and new ideas to Council.

Question: There’s strong consensus to increase affordable housing in Evanston. What concrete proposals do you support to achieve more affordable use?

Mr. Nalls: First, we need to make sure that we aren’t falling prey to developers who promised affordable units in exchange for the development rights of luxury buildings. We have to be concrete about our affordable housing plan going forward. And we have to establish trust between community members and members of Council. So I believe that we should enlist the help of many individuals in Evanston, more affordable housing experts. And we can turn to communities such as Northbrook, where they established a community land trust to hold low-cost units in perpetuity. And it’s important that we lay out a cohesive, affordable housing plan going forward working with those experts working with local advocacy groups who have been fighting for affordable housing, in creating a plan that we can implement and follow going forward into the future.

Mr. Biss: Middle-income working households are at risk of being pushed out of this country. We have a problem for failed households living in deep poverty to be able to afford to be here, especially near transportation, which enables them to work. We have a problem of segregation in this community, and a problem of affordability for older adults and the problem of affordability for families and children. We need to take a comprehensive look at our zoning code from the point of view of racial equity, and we have to partner with the federal government to bring in resources for the outside to announce portability across our community.

Ms. Keenan: We can’t keep coming up with solutions that are just having luxury developers pay into a fund. We need true affordable housing and not just for mixed races, but for mixed income as well. We’re enhanced by our diversity. But when we’re losing socio-economic diversity, we’re also pricing out of town other generations of families that have been in town. So when we look at affordable housing, we need to do it with a model like what Northbrook was using, or what Wilmette used in in adaptive reuse of Mallinckrodt [College]. We need to be more creative about the way we approach things.

Question: Do you support efforts to restructure the 911 emergency response system? And what is your vision for our transformed system?

Ms. Keenan: I think the 911 system works for what we need it to do right now. But I think like so many things, it needs to evolve, and it needs to be impacted by some of what’s happened even in our culture for over the past year. We also have a 311 system in Evanston. Like so many of these issues in town, we need to differentiate when one is needed. And the other is sort of performative. So I would start with an audit of the system, see what the calls are that recognize what the metrics are, and try to look at that with some community input about how we could do it better.

Mr. Nalls: One of the steps in our police reform plan is looking at our 911 dispatch system, and implementing an alternative emergency system. We would model that after the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, where they took about 17% of the overall call base going into the 911 and saved the city about eight and a half million dollars in its first year. This is a moral right and a fiscally responsible act – that we can be saving lives by having individuals and our emergency response teams come out better qualified to deal with behavioral issues. We want to take the burden away from the Evanston police department that they can focus on the jobs that they need [to do].

Mr. Biss: [Police officers’] very specialized powers are not the best way to address a lot of other challenges. We need to have a comprehensive, community-wide discussion about the different 911 calls and ask ourselves, “What are the problems that are best solved with skill sets that a police officer brings? What are the intermediate category problems that are best served with a co-response model?” Then you have to train up the 911 intake folks to make sure they have a completely clear understanding of which calls to deflect where if you’ve done all this, the outcome will be a higher quality of public safety at a lower cost in a more just way.

Question: Do you think the City should sell some of its assets? Which ones?

Mr. Biss: I certainly don’t have a plan to sell City assets. It’s probably no secret the City asset that we are most often asked about in this campaign – because there’s a lot of chatter and challenges – is the Civic Center. What would be done without property if it were sold, where would the seat of City government move to? If we’re willing to consider selling a public asset – which means taking something which is currently owned by the public and utilized to the benefit of the whole public and then privatizing it for some purpose – we better do that for a good reason. We have to be open to options, but I think we have to be very, very careful,  understanding that the loss that comes with privatization of a City asset is a loss that goes on in perpetuity. Our lakefront is a sacred trust that we have with the future generations… And that’s not the place where I would be open to privatization.

Ms. Keenan: I know right now, there is actually a list of our assets…. And I know that the Civic Center was assessed at $14 million. I also know that years ago, community members put together a referendum, which takes a lot of work, I can tell you firsthand, and put it on the ballot. And the citizens of Evanston said, “We want to keep the Civic Center.” What I think happens in Evanston feels a little bit binary: We’re either going to sell it or we’re going to keep it. But could we come up with a public-private partnership, where we could maybe keep the Civic Center and do work with Landmarks Illinois for adaptive reuse. Maybe we would use the first and second floor; maybe we don’t need all of that space. But it’s in the Fifth Ward; we should keep it centrally located. It’s got free parking, which means access for everyone. We don’t need a TIF, which is being proposed right now by this Council. So think [it should be decided] on a case-by-case basis.

Mr. Nalls: There are definitely small assets in Evanston that can be looked at on a department- by-department basis, seeing if they would necessarily be needed, and what happens to them going forward – whether those are certain vehicles, and different aspects of different programs. But when we look at major assets that the City holds, like the Civic Center, like the various community centers, we need to look at other options we have on the table, in terms of what will we do with that area, once it is given up from the public. An example of that, which I see on almost daily basis, the old recycling center is open, that it’s been laid open as a storage [facility] for the past 10 years since the closing. And there are their assets like that that the City has. So we could look at it and say, “OK, what else could we make this? And how could this be developed?” But ultimately, when it comes to a large asset, this is a decision that could be in the hands of residents in the form of a referendum, or just public input. It’s not up to the City Council to decide what happens to the Civic Center or some community [centers].

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...