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Since the City adopted the Council-Manager form of government in 1952, it has been an accepted piece of how Evanston operates.

But picking up on comments made by candidates during the campaign, Evanston Together LLC, a new political group, is framing its support around candidates who back the current system.

Under the City of Evanston’s present form of government, the Council-Manager system, the City Manager manages the City on a day-to-day basis. The Mayor and aldermen – whose positions are considered part-time – make policy decisions. 

The League of Women Voters of Evanston (LWVE) noted in its 2000 edition of This is Evanston, “The council-manager form of government attempts to balance representative government via popularly elected officials, who must answer to the voters, and a competent administration vis-à-vis professional staff, who carry out their duties apart from partisan politics.”

The 1952 change from a Mayor-City Council form of government to a Council-Manager system came about by City referendum, the only way a home-rule unit can change its form of government, according to Article VII, Section 5 (F) of the Illinois Constitution.

Mass Mailings From a New PAC

Accusations and innuendoes are swirling around candidates for aldermen in the April 6 election, and using the yardstick of a possible change of form of government, Evanston Together has endorsed a slate of candidates for aldermen and called the opponents of these candidates also a “slate.”

A recent mass mailing referred to a forum held on March 2 but did not specify the host, the Evanston Branch of the NAACP, or those in attendance.

The forum was open only to candidates from specific wards.

 “At a March 2 candidates forum,” Evanston Together’s mailer said, “a slate of candidates said they wanted to get rid of the current Evanston system of government, doing away with a professional City Manager like most cities our size and going to a Cicero-style strong mayor.” 

Candidates’ Words on Forms of Government

The issue came at probably the high water mark of the “let’s explore a different system of government” phase of the election, with activists having just pulled upsets in the Feb. 23 primary, knocking out incumbent aldermen Donald Wilson and Ann Rainey in the Fourth and Eighth Ward.

It also came only a few days after some longtime members of the community, apparently a forerunner to Evanston Together, sent out an email, raising alarm about Evanston’s way of governing, as well as a number of other issues.

Here are excerpted comments from candidates at the NAACP event, as well as comments by candidates who weren’t there at other forums on the issue.

Judy Fiske, candidate for another term as alderman in the First Ward. She made the following comments at the League of Women Voters of Evanston candidates forum on March 13:

“I too am a strong proponent of the Council-Manager form of government. And again, it was the League who was responsible for bringing this to the attention of the City in the 1950s, and that was in response to a mayoral form of government, which I think the League at that time, according to my research, was really concerned that we keep the money and politics out of our City government, and that we remain at least on the face of things, non-partisan.”

Clare Kelly, candidate for alderman in the First Ward at the NAACP forum:

“I do favor looking into a strong mayor, and elected-and-salaried Mayor position. I also think we need to look at the infrastructure right now. What’s happened is that we have literally squandered tens of millions of dollars in these last four years that have not benefited anybody. We need to figure out why are we paying our City Manager more money than the Governor of Illinois makes, more money than the governor of California, more than the mayor of Chicago.”

Darlene Cannon, candidate for alderman in the Second Ward (NAACP forum):

“I agree that to explore a different form of government, where we would have a mayor in leadership and paying him a decent salary – I think that right now is the [best] form of government. I feel like our Council is not fully aware about how decisions are being made. And in addition to that, I think that our current form of government is not leading with the care and concern about long-term impact that it’s going to have on marginalized residents. And so we need to reevaluate what we are doing right now, and definitely implement some changes.”

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, seeking another term of office in the Second Ward (NAACP forum):

“This is such a vital question for people to pay attention to. And so here are the facts: the last Black mayor that we had was Lorraine Morton. And I think if anyone pays attention to the previous races, the amount of resources that it takes to be elected Mayor would really marginalize people of color, and that’s fact. I hope that everyone’s paying attention to this because when we look at tinkering with our government then you are definitely handing over the power to a different segment of town without any guarantees.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, candidate in the Third Ward, (LWVE forum).

“I am a very, very strong advocate for the City Council-City Manager form of government for a number of reasons. First, actually, it was the League of Women Voters in the City of Evanston who led the charge 70 years ago for the City of Evanston to become a Council-Manager form of government, for very good reasons.”

“A City our size has 75,000 [people], has 800 employees, a $350 million budget. What that [the Council-Manager form] allows us to do is to hire a professional to run our government, which is significant – and which is then guided by elected officials.

“I think that that provides us with a perfect City Manager who has professional training and experience to manage what is a pretty large budget with a fairly large number of employees. That allows a city … our size to get the highest-quality City workers, and employees to give us the best advice and their expertise.

“I believe that this is the best form of government for a city … our size because when we compare, and look at cities approximately our size that have a strong mayor form of government, they are Cicero. Those are cities that I don’t want to be like.”

Nicholas Korzeniowski, candidate for alderman in the Third Ward (NAACP forum):

“Let’s see what delivers the best government product for the people, right? That should be the goal, whatever that might be. But I think it’s worth noting that the reason folks are upset with the system right now is because they’re unhappy with the City Manager right now – not the person, the role.”

Diane Goldring, candidate for alderman in the Fourth Ward (NAACP forum):

“In the exploration I’ve done on this topic the [towns] that have a Council-Manager form of government always want to explore the other – you know, the grass is always greener on the other side, right? So, I would definitely be open to the strong mayor form of government. I think the complaint about our current form of government is that the City Manager is appointed, not elected, so not accountable to the residents. But at the same time, there is some continuity going forward.”

Jonathan Nieuwsma, candidate for alderman in the Fourth Ward:

“I’m in favor of whatever form of government it takes to be responsive and transparent and accountable to the people of Evanston – whether that’s a strong mayor, weak mayor system. I’m open to that discussion. I tend to feel like the grass might always seem greener but maybe the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know. And so my initial focus would be to stick with the government that we have now, to do it right, make sure that as aldermen we’re engaged with our community and optimize the system we have now.”

Bobby Burns, candidate for alderman in the Fifth Ward (NAACP forum):

“I’m open to both. I would just caution us if we decided to move to a strong mayor form of government, we see in places like Calumet City, that as the races get more expensive, law firms especially get active in some, supporting a mayor of their choosing in an attempt to almost bid on future contracts. And we would have to, in conjunction with that change [to a strong-mayor system] pass some type of campaign finance reform that made sure we didn’t see law firms and other people too active in our local elections. But I’m open to both.”

Carolyn Murray, candidate for alderman in the Fifth Ward (NAACP forum): “Yes, I would be open to exploring a new form of City government. If we did have a full-time mayor, I think that that position would definitely give some light as to some of the decisions that arbitrarily are made by a City Manager that the community has not been supportive of.”

Thomas Suffredin, seeking another term as Sixth Ward alderman (NAACP forum):

“I think it’s a move [to a Mayor-Council system] worthy of exploration. I’ve seen how the current form – what some of the shortcomings are. I think a full-time elected mayor makes sense. I think also [another item of focus is] looking at how our wards are drawn – which is something that the next Council will have the responsibility to do. Having in addition to ward alderman, some that are elected at large. Whether we get a better government product that way is worthy of discussion. So I know if you’re looking for a yes or no answer I would say that I, I am inclined to support a change to a Mayor-Council system. But you know that’s a community discussion we need to have, at the end of the day. It really comes down to what is the most efficient use of the money that we can pour into the government, and what delivers the best product for the residents who live here. And if that is in fact the Mayor-Council system, I’d absolutely support it.”

Katie Trippi, candidate for Sixth Ward Alderman (LWVE forum):

“I agree with Eleanor [Revelle] that the current form of government seems to be the most appropriate for our size of a city and our budget. I definitely want a professional involved in managing  those two aspects of our City. Again, I invite the League of Women Voters to take a look at this question. I think I agree with Alderman Suffredin that it doesn’t harm us to take a look at least whether it would be a cost-saving measure [under a different system]. I do have concerns about the accessibility of the Mayor’s Office for all citizens for running, and I can tell you that if the City Council  members become professional politicians that would dissuade candidates like myself [from] running for office…someone who’s been involved in the Evanston community all of my life, mostly in the not-for- profit, sector.”

Eleanor Revelle, candidate for another term of alderman in Evanston’s Seventh Ward (LWVE forum):

“Well I favor our current Council-Manager form of government. It’s a way to have professional staff, managing, taking care of the daily business in the community. The City Council sets the policies and makes sure that they are properly implemented and [leads to delivering] the services that the residents want. I’m a strong supporter of our current form of government.”

Mary Rosinski, candidate for alderman in the Seventh Ward (NAACP forum):

“I’d like to have a professional mayor full time, pay her appropriately to do the job, and [have] the City Council voting on moving forward on policies, I think we could get a good City Manager to help the Mayor do something,  But since the City Manager is not elected, I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot of accountability there.”

……………………………

The issue has been hovering around since early in the campaign. The City’s Democratic Party of Evanston included the question in its one-on-one interviews with candidates.

Those with interest in such a move talk about the greater accountability an elected official would have.

In 2019, residents packed three Council meetings, urging Council members to retain a popular Community Services Manager.

But Council members sat mostly stone-faced throughout the process, saying that person’s status was the City Manager’s decision. Council members do not respond to public comment.

At a Jan. 27 podcast sponsored by the Evanston RoundTable, mayoral contender Lori Keenan spoke of the need “of having a mayor and council that really has the vested interest of the community, and becomes their voice. I think that’s really important. We’ve just sort of lost that accountability component,” she said.

Weighing in on the issue, then-candidate and now Mayor-elect Daniel Biss, a member of the state legislature for eight years, noted that State law lays out the different kinds of government the City can have.

“We have now what’s called a managerial form of government, which really leaves an awful lot of power, essentially universal power when it comes to personnel in the hands of the City Manager,” he said.

Under that system, the Mayor and Council  “just kind of set policy,” managing government that way, he said.

State law offers some other options, he noted.  For example, some of Evanston’s neighboring suburbs operate with what’s called a commission form of government.

Then, there is the strong-mayor system, he said, which in some ways may be “more intuitive to some people, where you elect a mayor and they actually go and run the city itself,” rather than hiring a city manager to do it.

“So I think we ought to look at all options,” he said in the podcast. “The problem that we have, in my opinion, is a lack of clarity about who’s responsible for what and where the buck stops. When you have that lack of clarity, here’s what happens: Residents might not like something; they go to the person they voted for whether that’s their aldermen or their mayor. They say, ‘Hey Alderman, ‘I don’t like what just happened.’ And the response from the elected official was, ‘Well, don’t look at me; it’s the City Manager’s decision.’

“That’s a messed up accountability system that harms our democracy’s ability to function,” he said. “I think we need to fix that.”

“I think shifting to a whole different form of government is disruptive,” he added. “That would not be my first attempted solution. But we’ve got to figure out how to solve that accountability problem, and if the only way is to move to a strong mayor form of government, we’ve got to be open to that answer.”