News conference
Community Alliance for Better Government board member Lesley Williams (center) talks about the group’s concerns about Evanston’s City Manager hiring process at a news conference Dec. 6 at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center. Other community members at the news conference are (left to right): Oliver Ruff, Diane Goldring, Bennett Johnson, Rick Marsh and Elliot Zashin. Allie Harned, another CABG board member, was at the news conference but not in the photograph because she was video recording the session.

Representatives of two Evanston grassroots activist organizations raised concerns Dec. 6 about the lack of community input thus far into the hiring of Evanston’s next City Manager.

They called on the Mayor and City Council to provide a full update on where the city is at this point.

In a news conference held on the second floor of the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, members of the Community Alliance for Better Government and Reclaim Evanston voiced concerns about the search, with the application process for City Manager candidates having ended Nov. 29.

The groups were involved in the last City Manager search, conducted in 2020, noted CABG President Rick Marsh.

“We just had just a tremendous amount of difficulty in getting the City Council and elected officials into a process that offered transparency [and] that offered the opportunity for community input, and we just didn’t see that,” Marsh said.

“To be honest with you, I think it was pretty much a travesty,” he told reporters. “This time, we want to make sure that we’re holding folks accountable.”

In the previous search, then-Mayor Stephen Hagerty and the City Council selected interim City Manager Erika Storlie for the top city job over two outside candidates, both Black women who some community members maintained had better credentials than Storlie.

Storlie’s selection came less than a day after the city hosted a public forum to give residents a chance to hear the finalists.

Storlie ultimately resigned from her $225,000 position effective Oct. 8 this year, just short of a year into the job.

Her resignation came after the council authorized an outside investigation into a charge by female lakefront staff that top city officials had not acted on their petition, presented more than a year earlier, alleging widespread sexual harassment and sexual misconduct by their supervisors.

On Dec. 6, Storlie was appointed Village Administrator of East Dundee, with a contract through April 30, 2025.

Storlie and staff have maintained they took action in response to the petition, including requiring all lakefront staff to take a sexual harassment course as well as assigning a Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department employee to serve as a liaison with the Human Resources Division to receive any complaints and concerns from lakefront staff.

Council members approved a $25,000 contract Sept. 27 with Sacramento, California-based CPS HR to conduct a nationwide search to fill Storlie’s position.

The firm’s duties include creating a brochure to attract potential candidates for the City Manager position.

During October, the consultant was scheduled to meet with City Council, executive staff and suggested stakeholders in person and via telephone/teleconference to discuss attributes of the ideal candidate, according to information posted on the city’s website.

In addition, CPS HR conducted a virtual town hall meeting Oct. 30 to receive community feedback regarding ideal candidate attributes and the challenge and opportunities they will face.

The public process was much less extensive than the last search, where a representative from GovHR, a locally based search firm, appeared before the council to respond to questions about the scope of the search.

Early in that process, GovHR representatives also attended many ward meetings at which Evanston residents voiced the attributes they hoped to see in the city’s next chief executive.

Williams: Process ‘devaluing’ citizen concerns

At the Dec. 6 news conference, CABG member and former head of adult services at Evanston Public Library Lesley Williams said the Community Alliance for Better Government and Reclaim Evanston are dedicated to improving transparency, responsiveness and racial equity in Evanston city government.

“And we’re concerned that this hiring process that we’re seeing is not adhering to any of those values,” said Williams, “and is in fact repeating old patterns of secrecy and the devaluing of public input. And ‘devaluing’ is the key, because it’s not just enough to take public input. It’s important that the City Council actually use that public input, actually consider it important – and, in fact, essential – to making the decision on what is the most important position in Evanston’s city government, that has tremendous influence over the lives of every single person that lives in Evanston.”

She said that especially holds true for the public input process that “so far has consisted of a very oddly and badly worded survey and one town hall that only had about 30 participants.”

“And during the town hall,” she continued, “when people asked questions about how they were going to be using public input, and particularly if it was going to be a racially equitable process, if they were going to be using a racial equity lens, it became very apparent that the search firm knows absolutely nothing about doing a racially equitable hiring.”

She charged that the organization appeared unfamiliar with any of the organizations, such as the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, that specifically have as their mission racial equity in municipal government and municipal hiring.

“And when we asked what their experience was, all they could say was that they had hoped to hire several women for positions, but nothing about hiring people of color or a racially equitable process,” she said.

“According to the plan on the city’s website,” Williams said, “the selection process will be conducted solely by the City Council. There are no public forums listed; there’s no mention of interviews with citizen panels or even with city staff. And this is unacceptable. This is absolutely unacceptable, and we refuse to stand by and let them hold a process for the City Manager hiring which completely ignores the public.”

Mayor Biss: ‘Very significant transparency, public input’

A CPS HR representative did not immediately respond to the concerns after email and phone messages were left Dec. 7.

Asked in a Dec. 6 email about the groups’ concerns, Mayor Daniel Biss responded:

“The City is committed to engaging in a national search to find the best possible person to be our next city manager, and to do this with very significant transparency, public input, and stakeholder engagement.

“This began with numerous stakeholder interviews, a town hall discussion, and a written survey that garnered nearly 1,000 responses, and it will continue with meaningful input into the evaluation of finalists in early January,” he said.

During a short question-and-answer session after the news conference, members were asked how the current process stacks up with the previous one where group members raised serious concerns.

Williams said it seems like “it’s a less transparent and less inclusive process than the previous one, because even though we had a lot of concerns with how those forums were held, at least they [city officials] held forums. And at least they did have all three of the finalists appear publicly and on Zoom so that the entire citizenship could watch that; and there’s nothing in the description of the city manager’s search that even indicates that they’re about to do that.”

Closed-session interviews

According to CPS HR’s timetable on the city’s webpage, starting this week, in closed session, City Council members were to “review the consultants’ recommendations regarding top candidates; determine the short-list candidates to be interviewed by the Council and possibly by other subject matter experts, staff, etc.“

Beginning next week, according to the timetable, council members were to interview short-listed candidates virtually and determine finalists for further consideration.

City Council interviews with finalist candidates are then to take place the week of Jan. 3, leading to a selection.

In a letter to council members, the Community Alliance for Better Government and Reclaim Evanston, wrote, “While we understand the need to expedite the hiring process, a short timeline should not be at the expense of community input.”

The full text of the letter can be found here.

The City Council has “a great opportunity here,” maintained CABG President Marsh, “to really include the community, to have folks involved to be a part of the process.”

Another CABG member, Oliver Ruff, a retired school principal and longtime community leader, observed that the relations between residents and public officials had previously slid to one of near hopelessness.

“So we’re hoping that we don’t get to that point,” he said. “We’re hoping we can maintain some sense of hopefulness, as to them doing the right thing and being accountable.”

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.

One reply on “Groups decry lack of public input in City Manager hiring process”

  1. Here we go again with a process to hire our City Manager without a do All you can to listen to the community voices, but exhibit in your decisions, examples of where you took that in and responded accordingly. After all, our tax dollars pay the bills, right?

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