Alderperson Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward. Her proposal would return authority to City Clerk to hire top assistant. (City of Evanston photo)

The Evanston City Clerk would be able appoint her own Deputy Clerk, shifting that power away from the City Manager office, under a change backed by the City Council’s Rules Committee July 7.

Council Members voted in favor of a proposal by Council Member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, recommending a change in City ordinance to put the authority for hiring the City Clerk’s top assistant back into that office.

Currently, the Deputy Clerk is a full-time position, filled through a hiring process, said Assistant City Attorney Brian George in a memo to the Committee. The City Manager approves all potential employees, he said.

Going back further in Evanston’s history, though, the City did not have that involvement.

“I hired all my own people without any approval from anyone else,” said Kris Davis, whose tenure as City Clerk ran until 1997, in response to a written inquiry last year. “Independent official,” she emphasized about the Clerk’s post.

The City Clerk is the City’s only full-time elected official.

The office has a wide variety of duties, including taking the official minutes for City Council meetings, receiving petitions, communications addressed to the Council, signing for and preparing ordinances, and administering the City’s Real Estate Transfer tax. Illinois law even allows the Clerk, as a public official, to solemnize marriages.

The Clerk also serves as the City’s local election official. Newcomer Stephanie Mendoza was elected to the office in April.

In discussion at Committee meetings, Ms. Fleming said she was not aware how the Deputy post became placed under the City Manager’s office.

She said the current alignment “seems to be contrary to how we operate at every other department,” in the City, where managers assign the duties and perform evaluations of their assistants.

“Also, you know the City Clerk obviously is elected to do duties that are not under the City Manager’s purview and that are duties that the citizens have elected the Clerk to do,” she said, “and so the idea that they would not have their own staff who they are daily managing and responsible for … just doesn’t seem to make sense.”

Council Member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, argued against the move, noting that under Evanston’s current form of government, “we don’t have any elected [official] supervising a staff person.”

Without providing details, he said, “We’ve seen in the past where, not too long ago, we’ve had two people leave a specific office working for an [elected official], along with other concerns that don’t really need to be mentioned.”      

He added, “I like things the way they are now, and I’m going to be voting no against this.”

In response, Ms. Fleming argued, “Regardless of what happened or what we perceived to happen with any Clerk, I think if people elect the new Clerk or people elect new City Council members, that person should be treated as their own individual – their office or their duty should not be hindered by what happened before they came in.

“We know that there was a lot of responsibilities taken from the last Clerk’s office [held by Devon Reid, now 8th Ward Council Member], but that has nothing to do [with] Ms. Mendoza. You know, we’re asking her to do a job; the citizens have appointed her to do this position,” she noted.

Council Member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, whose tenure on the Council dates back to 1997, said in the past, “We have had Deputy Clerks who have been hired with the input – this is my understanding – of whoever was the Clerk at the time.”

She said the Deputy Clerk is then “officially hired by the City Manager, just like anybody else, in any other division. I would imagine that the Clerk would then obviously give the Deputy Clerk their review, help them develop in their job, but that [the person for the position] wouldn’t necessarily be hired specifically by the Clerk.

“This has nothing to do with Ms. Mendoza,” Ms. Wynne said. “Prior to this current Council, and, and I think that what happened before worked very well, and we had a very successful Clerk’s operation for a very long time.”

Ms. Fleming responded, “I think that the elected Clerk should be able to manage their office without the input of the City Manager, aside from payroll and HR [Human Resources] and those [functions] they don’t have the function to do. I think they are elected separately from us, and we should respect them to fulfill the job that the residents have put forth for them to do, including managing their staff and their budget.”

The salary for the Deputy Clerk as well as the insurance and the retirement fund contributions all come out of the Clerk offices budget, Ms. Mendoza confirmed at the meeting.

Council Member Eleanor Revelle, 7th, Ward, asked if, under the change, the rules and procedures that apply to all City positions would also apply to that position. Mr. Reid said that if Council Members wanted that to be the case they would have to write that into the ordinance.

“If you look at the code, the City Manager has responsibility for many departments. The Clerk’s office is not listed as one of those departments,” he said.

He proposed an amendment that “we’ll do everything that Alderman Fleming is proposing,” regarding the Clerk’s having authority over the position, adding in accordance with Human Resources policy.

Council Members approved the amendment as well as Ms. Fleming’s proposal. The issue will now go to the full Council for discussion and a vote.

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.