With so many issues in this very prickly campaign season, the RoundTable is augmenting its election section with a few “pop-up” questions.

Here is this week’s aldermanic question, to which all candidates for alderman were invited to respond:

In this election season there have been accusations and innuendoes that certain candidates wish to change the form of City government. This of course can be done only by referendum, but a majority of aldermen could vote to put such a referendum question on a ballot. 

Would you state your position on retaining the current manager form of government or changing to a strong mayor form of government? 

The RoundTable received the following responses, which were compiled by Mary Gavin:

Judy Fiske, First Ward Alderman

I fully support Evanston’s Council-Manager form of government.

In 1952, in response to an increasing number of administrative challenges and a lack of efficiency and transparency in the day-to-day management of the city, the citizens of Evanston chose to remove politics from city operations when they voted by a 2-1 margin to adopt the Council-Manager form of government rather than continuing with a strong mayor and council.

This decision, part of an effort led by the League of Women Voters and Evanston Chamber of Commerce, meant that all city operations and the delivery of civic services would be managed by a Council-appointed professional. This city administrator would oversee city operations, enforce all laws and ordinances, administer city policies, hire and fire staff, prepare the annual budget and organize service delivery — all without regard to politics. This would free elected aldermen from administrative duties and allow the Council to focus solely on legislative issues and policy.

The manager would be hired by the City Council and, until recently, removal required a majority vote of the council, although the number to remove is now 7 of 10 votes. This stands in contrast to an elected mayor, who can only be removed from office by the voters.

While the Council-Manager form of government has been challenged over the years, a significant majority of Evanston voters believe that it continues to provide the most efficient, transparent and cost-effective form of government and is the best defense against politics and cronyism creeping into city operations. 

Abandoning the Council-Manager form of government in favor of a strong mayor and council would have serious negative implications for our city and our citizens by politicizing even the most basic of City operations and delivery of services that affect our daily lives. The right decision was made in 1952, and it continues to serve us well today.

Melissa Wynne, Third Ward Alderman

Our current form of government – a highly-professional, non-political city manager directed by an elected city council – is recognized as the gold standard for cities of our size.  Implemented in 1952 following a good-government initiative led by the League of Women Voters, our council-manager structure of government has served us well for nearly 70 years. I strongly support maintaining this system, and I am categorically opposed to a change to the so-called strong mayor form of government.  Here’s why:

Our city manager-led form of government relies on professional expertise to implement policies legislated by aldermen who are duly elected by Evanston voters. In this government structure, I view aldermen’s job priorities as: hearing and heeding residents’ concerns and ideas, faithfully representing their interests on the city council and envisioning a better future for Evanston based on each alderman’s judgment and experience. 

Our current council-manager structure enables aldermen to pursue these priorities unencumbered by a political boss in the mayor’s seat. It supports more equitable policies because each alderman has an equal voice on the council. It diffuses the power of special interests, as nine equally-empowered aldermen are collectively less vulnerable to political pressure than one powerful mayor. The council-manager structure nearly eliminates partisan politics from municipal governance by maintaining checks and balances against the powers of the city manager, who serves at the pleasure of the council, while allowing her to make managerial decisions devoid of political pressure.

For the past 70 years, we have been managed by professionally-trained, non-political experts in public administration.  Evanston’s budget is $330 million and we have 700 employees who provide everything from parks & recreational programs, through infrastructure maintenance, to health services.  Managing this large and diverse organization requires a high degree of public management sophistication and training. And because our manager and staff do not serve at the whim of a strong mayor, we are able to hire extraordinarily talented and dedicated professionals at all levels and positions. Evanston has flourished with this structure for seven decades.  I am completely committed to maintaining the many benefits of our current council-manager form of government.   

Diane Goldring, Candidate for Fourth Ward Alderman

Ultimately a change to our form of government must be led and ratified by Evanston voters.  Our current city manager form of government provides consistency between administrations as well as a professional to oversee Evanston’s $300 million budget. 

On the other hand, the most powerful person in our local government is not directly accountable to voters.  Yet not one voter with whom I have spoken during my campaign has supported moving from our current city manager to a strong mayor form of government. 

The topic has not come up in any conversation with residents about the issues that concern them. 

I am focused on pressing matters such as rebounding from COVID, affordable housing, economic development, infrastructure and the like.  While I would welcome conversations about how our city government can better serve the people of Evanston, I am not at this time considering a change to our current form of government.

Jonathan Nieuwsma, Candidate for Fourth Ward Alderman

A well-functioning City government must be engaged, accountable, transparent, and responsive to the needs of the entire community—not only to those with the loudest voices or biggest bank accounts but also to those whose voices have been marginalized or even ignored.

I’m in favor of whatever form of government makes that possible, or to paraphrase the Declaration of Independence, whatever form of government seems most likely to ensure our safety and happiness.

The Declaration continues: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes” and it’s from that angle that I approach the question of our local form of government.

I’m not reflexively opposed to exploring a strong mayor system – it never hurts to talk about ideas.  As an elected official it will be my duty to seek ways to make Evanston government more accountable and more efficient, and as a home rule city we have the freedom to be creative in how we deliver services.

However, it would be an uphill battle to convince me that a strong mayor system would automatically result in better government. Our form of government isn’t the problem – lack of responsiveness and accountability is the problem.

Rather than go through the ordeal of changing and potentially opening a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences, we should do a better job with the system we have. Neither system, weak mayor nor strong mayor, works without a responsive City Council which the voters hold accountable. Let’s start there and commit ourselves instead to the critical issues that need our attention: equity, affordability, public safety, economic development, and environmental sustainability.

Thomas Suffredin, Sixth Ward Alderman

I respect the traditional reform rationale for Evanston’s having a City
Manager, and I’ve successfully worked within that framework for four
years. Abolishing or getting rid of the managerial system has not been
part of my campaign.

But I agree with mayor-elect Daniel Biss that it’s reasonable to have a conversation about whether modifying how we govern ourselves might result in a better government, unless you think that Evanston’s government is perfect today.

Also, in many ways, Evanston now is not the Evanston of 1952, nor are its challenges the same 70 years later. Let’s keep what works, but have an open mind on reform. A willingness to consider and discuss ideas that may make our City better, and its government more responsive and accountable, is the very minimum that one should expect from an elected official.

The RoundTable does not endorse any candidate for public office.