New Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss didn’t hold back, offering candid opinions about his first months in office at a town hall meeting sponsored by the Central Street Neighbors Association. Jeff Smith, Vice President of CSNA, served as moderator of the event. (RoundTable photo)

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Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss told a neighborhood group in late June that things may be “bumpy” at first with new City Council members working out their priorities for the City, but he believes the process will provide a richer product at the end.

Addressing the Central Street Neighborhood Association (CSNA) in a town meeting format at the American Legion hall at 1030 Central St., on June 29, Mr. Biss, whose previous legislative experience was at the State level, said his first two months as mayor have been “an incredible education for me.”

The new Council includes several new members with differing attitudes about what the key priorities of the City should be, he pointed out.

“And I’ve spent, I would say, an enormous amount of my first seven weeks just trying, as best as I can, to help navigate those relationships and bring people together, provide for constructive and useful discussions between people who might not see eye-to-eye on questions – whether those are elected officials with other elected officials, elected officials with staff, residents with all of us, residents with each other,” he told his audience.

Of the process moving forward, “I think that it’s going to be bumpy,” he said. “But I think that we’re all going to benefit from that because, fundamentally, I think that bumpiness is a product of an enormous diversity on our Council, and that diversity is reflective of this community.

“And once we figure out how to best and most efficiently work together, we’ll be able to have the kind of Council this community deserves – which is one that is really diverse in many different respects and able to represent the many different points of view that this community has. So I’m excited.”

CSNA Vice President Jeff Smith served as moderator of the meeting, with Mr. Biss, not working off notes, freely responding and adding commentary to residents’ questions on a wide range of topics.

One dealt with Evanston’s form of government, which blew up into a major issue during the City’s recent municipal campaign.

Evanston currently has a council-manager form of government, where the City Manager and professional staff run affairs on a day-to day-basis and with Council members deciding policy issues.

During the recent campaign season, several Council candidates as well as Mr. Biss, who represented Evanston in the State Legislature from 2011 to 2019, expressed openness to exploring different forms of government. One such form of government is a “strong-mayor” – most classically in place in Chicago, where the mayor has the authority to hire and fire staff.

Mr. Biss said, “Whatever form of government you have is going to have benefits and costs, and the form of government that we have has many benefits. Its chief cost, in my opinion, is an insulation of the operation of City government from the public.”

For example, he said, “If a City of Chicago employee is creating a situation that makes it really hard for [Mayor] Lori Lightfoot to get reelected, the fact that that employee works with Lori Lightfoot, is really important, right? That mechanism of public input is fundamental to how that form of government works.”

“We don’t have that form of government; we have a very different form of government, where the work being done by our City staff is being done by people whom the City Council does not hire, cannot fire, [and] should not try to interfere with their conditions of employment,” he said.

And so that means the residents are just a little further from some of the [actions] inside City government than they would be in a different [form] of government.”

“I’m not saying that to advocate for changing,” he added. “I’m not advocating change. I’m saying that is a fact; that is a downside. The current arrangement that we have accepted, because of the upsides [received]. But, Good Lord, then we have a responsibility to try to mitigate that downside,” he said.

“We, the elected officials, are now really the only access point for the public with strong accountability.”

Mayor Biss said that key is how that accountability can be most effectively transferred to the operations of City government and to the staff, “without trying to reach in to all the stuff that we deliberately try to avoid: a politicization of employment – you know payback – getting involved with that and threatening people [and] their jobs.

“We still want the accountability,” he said of the goal.

Another resident asked about the City adding more Council members. “We had 18, we went down to nine,” she observed. “If you could have 12 or something, three that were floaters,” not aligned to any particular ward – how would that work, she asked.

Mr. Biss coolly took a stab at that question, too, admitting he was open to the suggestion. “And I do think this is a decision that it would be a crime to make without real serious community involvement,” he first warned.

“I do think it’s timely, though,” he said. “The next election is in April of 2025. We’re going to get the census data relatively soon, and so redistricting will occur before that election occurs and so now is the right time to think about whether you want to change our structure.

“Personally, my instinct is opposite of yours,” he said to the questioner. “If you look at communities, sort of mid-sized communities in Illinois, and you’re just looking per capita at how many members of their governing body do they have, we’ve got a lot. You know most communities have more residents per representative – whether it’s a trustee or Council member – than we do. And I agree with your diagnosis and strongly: I think these little wards create an opportunity for parochialism that runs the risk of dividing us too much.”

Adding at-large Council members might be one solution, he agreed, but “a very simple solution of course would be to shrink the Council so that each ward is larger.”

“Another option that I’ve thought about a lot is,” he said, taking the original question into new territory, “you can go back to the old days before 1982, when the Illinois legislature had three member districts. Imagine if we had three wards, which each elect[ing] three Council members at large. Right then you would have three people working together, representing a larger area, less polarization,” he said.

There are important questions to be asked there too, he said, with the concern of the cultural identity of the Fifth Ward as possibly being impaired under that model.

“But I think it’s worth thinking creatively about other models.”

Stepping into the questioner’s role, Mr. Smith noted, “One of the inequalities, many in this room have sensed over the years, [is] the way in which proposals, ideas and spending are treated by City Council. We had a referendum that passed overwhelmingly to preserve the Civic Center. That seems to be being disregarded right now.”

Mr. Smith also pointed to the closing of the branch libraries, including one that long served the Central Street neighborhood. “People had to push, pull, kick and scream to try to hold on to Harley Clarke,” he said.

Meanwhile, “we’ve got all sorts of things that nobody’s asked for – a 311 program, which very few cities have of Evanston’s size.”

Mr. Biss responded, “It’s fair to say that there’s a lack of clarity around what the City’s priorities are, and therefore how decisions are getting made.”

He said one key element to those decisions is “How do we construct the relationship with residents?

“I think it needs to be a fundamentally collaborative relationship where we are trying to solve problems together,” he added.

A number of residents’ questions touched on issues away from the political sphere (if that is possible in Evanston). These included affordable housing, tax-increment financing (TIF) districts, equity, and the role of police.

Those who wish to view the meeting in full may visit the CSNA site at http://centralstreetneighbors.com.

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.

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