Candidates in the 2021 municipal election have spent surprisingly little time debating what went wrong in one of the current City Council’s most controversial moves – nearly scuttling a public process to hire a City Manager last year.

At the Central Street Neighbors Association’s Aldermanic forum March 3, moderator Jeff Smith asked candidates from the Sixth and Seventh Wards about the action and whether they would have handled it differently given the chance.

Three of the four candidates at the forum had played a role or been affected by the issue.

Sixth Ward Alderman Thomas Suffredin was the first Council member to challenge the move at the May 26 meeting last year after Mayor Stephen Hagerty had proposed that the City elevate Interim City Manager Erika Storlie to the top position.

The Mayor had cited the job Ms. Storlie and staff did revamping the City’s budget hit hard by COVID-19, recommending the Council move forward on the appointment, which was not on the meeting agenda.

He had also questioned the quality of candidate the City would be getting, willing to leave their job during a pandemic.

Seventh Ward Alderman Eleanor Revelle was among the aldermen speaking in support of the move.

Mary Rosinski, who is challenging Ms. Revelle in the Seventh Ward, has said the Council action abandoning a search for an outside candidate – a search to which Council had publicly committed – was what spurred her to run for office.

Mr. Smith walked the candidates through the issue at the March 3 forum.

“The City Manager selection process that we recently underwent was the subject of some discussion,” he said, leading into the question. 

“Do you think that it was done fairly and wisely – was it a good use of our funds?” he asked. 

“Or should we have done something different? If elected or re-elected, would you want to revisit that decision?” he asked the candidates.

City Manager Erika Storie Image from the City of Evanston

Ms. Rosinski went first.

“That was an unfortunate show of our City government,” she said. “I think we promised the people we were going to have a public process, that they were going to have input and feel that they were represented. And then at the last moment for the Mayor to suggest we just appoint, and then some of the other people to say ‘Well, it doesn’t matter who you bring forward I’m going to stay with the City Manager’ – and this has nothing to do with Erika’s qualifications or not qualifications –  I think that what was so wrong about that was the fact that the people are cut out – we’re about to be cut out by the members of the City Council.” She thanked Ald. Suffredin for standing up against the move.

“In the end it was probably a waste of money,” she said about the search, “because I don’t know that it was ever really open and not predetermined ahead of time. But I thought the whole process was very poor.”

Ald. Suffredin, the next to speak, noted “that there were several points where the City Manager search went wrong.”

At the May 26 meeting, he was the first alderman to speak out against the City’s abandoning the public search process, informing colleagues that “although the City Manager works with the City Council, the City Manager works for the residents, and for them to be cut out of this process is something the people who just want to hand this to Erika are going to be held accountable for.”

He did not water down his critique at the March 3 forum.

“I think the selection of GovHR, the search firm [which includes several former high-ranking City officials among its officers] was a mistake,” he said. “I think that that was rejected by the Administration & Public Works Committee and was resurrected by Council members with an agenda, so that was the first misstep. I think moving to hire Erika Storlie without a public process was another mistake, and I called that out at the meeting. And then we went through this public process, and then I think it sullied the public process. And then having citizen input, and then a decision happened within 24 hours, was another mistake.

“So, overall, the process was bogus,” he concluded. “But now Erika is the City Manager. She is subject to annual performance reviews by members of the City Council. That’s the process. I don’t think that it’s productive for us to talk about revisiting it immediately when a new Council is seated.  I think she deserves a chance to do the job well and the members of City Council have a responsibility to hold her accountable for her job performance.”

Ms. Trippi, Ald. Suffredin’s opponent in the April 6 General Election, said she disagreed with assessment of the search firm, maintaining she was glad the firm was hired. 

“We came up with three very good candidates,” she said. “I was aware and attended a meeting where I was able to meet those candidates, and I think we came out with the very best candidate among the three, and I’m glad that Erika is willing to serve this town. We are not the easiest place to manage, and I think Erika has done a tremendous job so far.”

“I absolutely agree,” she said, “that it is the job of the Council to hold her accountable for the job that she does and the performance of the rest of the City staff, which is absolutely excellent. And going forward, we will set specific goals and objectives that we will expect her to meet that are measurable. Just like every business and not-for-profit in town who will evaluate their CEO, we will do the same for Erika, and ensure that she will hold up those standards.”

Ald. Revelle said “in hindsight I do think it was a flawed process and we should not have tried to make it look as though we didn’t want to hear from the residents.”

At the time of the decision, she had cited  the “totally unforeseen situation” Council members had found themselves in with the pandemic as well as the opportunity they had to see Ms. Storlie performing well in her job, as factors in her decision.

At the March 3 forum, she said, “If I were to be able to redo it, I would make sure that we followed the process that we outlined at the very beginning. I do think the process ended up giving us three really excellent, well-qualified candidates to choose from, and I was particularly impressed by one of the ones that we did not choose. But ultimately I did think that Erika was the best-qualified and especially to provide continuity as we were struggling with the pandemic.”

Ultimately, she said, she regretted “the bad taste that it left in our residents’ mouths about the whole way the process was handled” as creating “an unfortunate way for Erika to start her job as City Manager.”

At the meeting, Mr. Smith also asked the candidates where they stand on future use of the City-owned Harley Clarke Mansion, with staff evaluation of four groups plans for the building to go to the Council March 8.

Image of Harley Clarke mansion from City of Evanston website.

Ald. Revelle

“I don’t expect the Council to make a decision, yes or no, to sign a lease with any one of them on Monday night [March 8],” Ald. Revelle said. “I do think it should be up to the next Council. I’m firmly committed to making sure that we do enter into a lease with one of the groups. 

“It is too bad that it’s taken so long to get where we are. I think the pandemic threw a real wrench into hearing from the proposers and have the kind of interaction with them that we would have liked to have had earlier, which might have been able to expedite this. I would expect that the next Council will be able to make a decision very promptly since we will have all the information at hand and ready for a real decision.”

Ms. Rosinski: 

“Back in 2013, we saved that building from turning into a restaurant-hotel with a three-story addition, covering the parking lot, so I was really glad that it was not privatized and those two-and-a-half acres did not get sold.”

Ms. Rosinski, a longtime real estate broker in the area, said the decision should be left to the next Council. “One thing I will say is that the people in this town are amazing, and I would love to see the next Council get behind the people and let them take it away [move ahead with revitalization]. We have the will, and there’s two great proposals, possible a third one out there that involve keeping this only lakefront place for the public use, and I think it’s critical that we value our assets in real estate. When I tell people in the other communities that we’re even contemplating tearing it down or taking down a public building on the lake, everyone goes ‘why would you do that? You will never get that back.’”

Ms. Trippi:

“I have not had the opportunity to look closely at these four specific [proposals]. I’m excited for any one of them and I honestly hope that this Council will act on it because I think it’s a crime that it has been carried on for so long. It’s been Evanston dithering at its best. I have to say that I was a proponent of the Jennifer Pritzker plan to privatize it, converting it into a hotel and bring some money into the City that we desperately need. I absolutely understand the importance of the public facility. We’ve got a beautiful lake front … I’m excited for what these next four proposals are going to show, and I will definitely take a stand on one of them should it come to my City Council.”

Ald. Suffredin

“I think the original Lakehouse & Gardens proposal at the beginning of this Council term [in 2017, to renovate the property into a multi-purpose venue for community groups] – “that group got totally hosed. I think, to go from where we had some contractual details to be worked out to ‘Never mind, we’re tearing this thing down,’ is something that contributed to the lack of trust.”

As for a decision on the issue, “We’re up against the end of this Council, so I can’t make a fully informed statement on the staff evaluation of the proposals,” he said at the forum. “But I think it is appropriate for this Council to make the decision. And I think we’ve got to just go in a direction. And I also think it’s very important as we parse the results of that referendum [in 2017, whether the building should be demolished] to remember that ‘at little and no cost to the taxpayer’ was one of the components that led to [preserving the building] getting as many votes as it did.”

Bob Seidenberg

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.