Daniel Ramos, one of two finalists for the Evanston City Manager job, started his career “as low you can go” and worked his way to his present position as Deputy Chief of Staff/Deputy City Manager for the City of Baltimore.
He served in that city’s Emergency Operations Center during the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, managed the state’s emergency centers during the largest snowstorm in Maryland history, and has played a lead role in the city and regional response to COVID-19.
“The one thing that I would like to share,” he said at a virtual Meet the Candidates town hall meeting for community members Jan. 9, “is that while I may be young, I am definitely battle-tested.”
Michael Jasso, the other City Manager finalist, spent the bulk of his professional career holding administrative positions for the City of Chicago and later for Cook County.
Jasso currently serves as Assistant City Manager for the City of Sacramento, Calif., (population: 500,219 in 2019). He said his experience in the different jobs has been enriching.
“I think my resume and background probably speaks to itself,” he said at the same meeting, following Ramos. “I think my experience in the Chicago area, working in diverse communities – whether it’s in the Southland [region], at the City of Chicago but also working across the nation – demonstrates my ability, that I’m a quick learner.
“I’m intellectually very, very curious. I think there’s lots of things that you learned from operating and working in other environments that then become applicable to a place like Evanston, that I’d be anxious to explore, both with the mayor and City Council and the community at large.”
The candidates shared their experiences and answered a wide range of questions in separate interviews at the town meeting, which marked the first time in the search process that community members had a chance to hear the finalists.
Sacramento, Calif.-based CPS HR Consulting, the firm conducting the search for the city, ran the session, soliciting questions from residents.
On Jan. 13, three panels, composed of community members, city staff and business and nonprofit stakeholders, will have a chance to dig deeper in a meet-and-interview session with the finalist candidates.
The feedback from those meetings will then be provided to the Evanston City Council, which has the final say on the selection.
In separate and nearly hourlong interviews at the Jan. 9 session, the candidates responded to a wide variety of questions related to city issues and also shared a little about their backgrounds that brought them to apply for Evanston’s top executive job.
Some excerpts follow.
Q. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Why do you want to be the City Manager of Evanston? What do you think you can contribute to Evanston?
Ramos: I grew up in southeast L.A., in a small town called Bell Gardens. I’m the proud son of two first-generation college students and the proud grandson of three Mexican immigrants.
I started my career about as low as you can go here in the City of Baltimore, as an intern and then subsequently as a mayoral fellow. I worked with the Fire Department and our Office of City, which is the City’s performance management arm, in order to reduce the amount of time and Medicaid spending in hospitals offloading patients; created the first-ever resource management system so we can work with our surrounding jurisdictions and the local hospitals on reducing that time. At the end of my fellowship the then-fire chief asked me to stay on as a first-ever analyst for the agency. When I got there, they couldn’t tell you basic things like who called 911 the most, for what, and what time, so I really helped the agency understand the data they had available and to make operational changes because of it.
Jasso: I was born and raised in Chicago on the Southwest Side, in the Back of the Yards. I’m one of seven kids. My father emigrated from Mexico City to Chicago to work when he was in his early 20s. My mom was born in Chicago. I went to school in the Chicago area, subsequently received a B.A. in architecture from Princeton University. And after serving in the Peace Corps for two years in Sanaa, Yemen, I returned to Chicago, and then went on to get my MBA at the University of Texas at Austin. Professionally, over my life, I’ve spent 15 to 17 years as an adult working in Chicago, principally at the City of Chicago, ultimately as the managing Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Housing and Economic Development, now the Department of Planning and Development. Bureau Chief for Cook County [Director for Cook County’s Bureau of Economic Development] … was my most recent stint with respect to my work experience before coming to Sacramento.
Q. Why do you want to be the City Manager of Evanston? What do you know about Evanston?
Ramos: When my wife and I were looking at places to move, we wanted someplace that was diverse. We wanted somewhere that was an urban center or adjacent to an urban center. And, most importantly, we wanted a place that shared our values. Evanston put a stake in the ground by creating a reparations program and put a stake in the ground in permanently eviscerating legacy policies that were inherently racist. I think that is something that the nation should aspire to, that is something I feel I can add value to.
Jasso: I’ve been knowledgeable, thought of Evanston for most of my life, and I’m not exaggerating that. I almost went to Northwestern, I ultimately decided not to go into Northwestern and instead attended Princeton, but a lot of my friends went there.
Evanston is really an iconic community, with a rich history – not only in the context of Illinois and the 1850s and 60s, as the university was started there – but nationally. Evanston is also a real city. It’s a real city with real issues. And that’s attractive to me.
Q. What experience do you have in dealing with diverse communities?
Ramos: I will admit that I have spent my entire career in Baltimore, and so there’s a little bit of a Baltimore lens to which I take to a lot of things, but Baltimore is incredibly diverse, 60% African American, growing Latino population – not just in racial diversity, but also economic diversity. We have a world-class waterfront, and we have some neighborhoods that have whole blocks that are vacant – so, a lot of familiarity. I’m not from Baltimore. Everything that you see, all the things I’ve accomplished, I came, I learned, I worked and was able to and made the relationships necessary to get things done.
Jasso: I think quite a bit of everywhere I’ve worked – whether it was the City of Chicago, whether it was Cook County, whether it was Washington D.C., or now Sacramento, are very diverse communities. A 2012 Harvard study on ethnicity and race ranked Sacramento the most diverse city in the United States, and it truly is. But diversity doesn’t mean equity. I want to be clear about that. …The communities that are most prevalent in a city like Sacramento or Evanston – an African American community or growing Hispanic community, as well as new immigrants there, I think, is critically important, because cities that are successful anyplace are those cities that realize we can’t let leave any population group behind – and that’s from a fundamental premise on equity.
Q. How would you work to systematically address racism?
Ramos: I’m familiar with Evanston’s reparations program. I feel it aligns very closely with some of the work that I’ve done. One of the things that I’ve led on behalf of [Baltimore] Mayor [Brandon] Scott was a reform of the city’s tax-sale system. This is the process by which the city sells mostly tax liens but also water and environmental citation liens on properties to private debt collectors who can charge up to a 12% premium, and if homeowners aren’t able to pay, actually go into foreclosure. When we did a data analysis, the overwhelming demographic was older African American seniors. This was a practice that was inherently racist, was inherently discriminatory and shifted generational wealth from families to private debt collectors. I was charged with doing the reform. I believe that you need to have two plans: The first plan is, “What are you doing to stop the bleeding? How are you repairing the hole in the ship?” We met with our attorneys, with our budget staff, with our Department of Housing to understand what authority the city had in order to help people. We had the authority to remove all owner-occupied properties that have been there the first time. So great, we did it. Mayor Scott announced that last May. We also knew that we have federal funding available to be able to keep folks in their home so any of the folks that we couldn’t touch, we were able to buy those liens back, to get those folks back to square one.
Jasso: So I think the first is always [through] data – right? – where our community is. It’s actually a lot easier in a city like Evanston, [in] northeastern Illinois than in communities here in California. We are hampered by specific legislation that says we cannot ask questions on race.
So we’re always figuring out ways around, ways to try to figure out what’s the actual impact of unemployment in our Hispanic community or the African American community. And how do we, as a city, along with our many partners, including the state, the private sector, the nonprofit sectors, work to mitigate that? So the first piece is better understanding the impact of inequities in the community itself.The second is being very deliberate in our strategies of when we invest, how we invest, how we are trying to equalize the playing field. I think it is very important that the pursuit of equity [and] inclusion is a process, not just a goal.
Q. Talk about what experience you have in implementing municipal climate action plans.
Ramos: I manage the Department of Public Works. There we started the city’s first-ever big blue bin container program so we had a dedicated bin for recycling. At the Department of Transportation, [we’re] promoting multimodal, promoting bike use, expanding our bike network, as well as creating, doing a debt plan in order to replace all of the city streetlights with LED. Climate action is not just social policy; it is very much a financial one. We’re seeing more and more of the impact of climate change on all cities, especially one like Baltimore, which is adjacent to the water. And then as well as a part of general services, one of the things I’m very proud of is we vacated over a million square feet of city property. This property wasn’t weatherized; it didn’t have any of the modern electrical that would reduce its carbon footprint. And we weren’t very efficiently using it. And we moved all those facilities. We moved all of the units within those facilities into a private facility that had all those lines. It significantly reduced the city’s electrical as well as carbon footprint.
Jasso: We recently adopted a legislative platform where, for instance, all new buildings in Sacramento need to be all-electric by 2026. It’s multifamily. We are currently grappling with how to deal with existing buildings and realizing it’s not just a regulatory framework. You can’t just say, “You got to do this,” without figuring out how do you actually make it possible for building owners, businesses and homes. Sacramento has one of the largest fleets of bikes and scooters and various other things in the United States. This is where city action comes in very strongly. We are greatly expanding our fleet of EV [electric vehicles], such that by 2026 I think over half our [fleet] will be all electric. But in order to do that, we also have to be very deliberate about how we invest in infrastructure. Now you can’t have an all-EV fleet without having a significant expansion of our charging stations. So these are all pieces that we’ve worked on, that I’ve worked on, in concert with my colleagues here in Sacramento.
Q. Can you describe how you have increased transparency for residents in your previous positions?
Ramos: One of the things that I helped facilitate was a complete change in how the city did community outreach for its budget. When I started, we did the vast majority of the outreach in the winter and the spring when the budget is mostly cooked.
We hired a dedicated community outreach and equity coordinator because that was what we needed to do. We started doing the outreach in the summer, in the fall to make sure that we were being authentic and we could look communities in the eye and say, “We’re here to listen, we’re here to take this input into consideration.”
We also tried to modernize some of [our] community outreach. We did a Reddit AMA [Ask Me Anything]. We did a Facebook Live. Not just that, I talked to every single council member, and I said, “We will go to every single community meeting that we get invited to, whether that be at night, whether that be on weekends – that we would be there to explain and be able to stand behind the city’s budget.” That helped to educate the residents on how it worked and why we were where we are.
Jasso: So when I came to Sacramento – and Sacramento is really an amazing community – I would say we were very siloed in terms of what we do. One of my firm beliefs is that everything a city does at the end of the day is economic development, in the sense that it creates economic opportunities for all its residents.
How we invest in public infrastructure, how we provide public safety on our streets – everything adds to the equation of creating opportunities and security for our residents, in terms of creating a viable place for them to live. So a couple of things we did when I first came on – one of the things that I think Sacramento was correctly observed to be – is that there was a lot of decision-making that took place only within the four walls of City Hall. And so we established a formal body that’s called the Equity and Inclusive Economic Development and Community Development Committee. It’s made up of up to 25 individuals from the community who were selected to actively give advice. So they had expertise – whether it’s on housing, whether it’s on small business, whether it’s some small business finance, a lot of different areas, social engagement with our communities. It was created very deliberately to give a voice to the city manager for broader community [involvement]. So that as we as the city manager’s office brought forward programs, policies, projects, and ideas were generated from the City Council where they say, “Hey, we want you to do this” or whether generated by staff or the community, saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if the city did this program or looked at this?” So that in fact, it was a sounding board. Secondly, we’ve been very deliberate about everything that this [Sacramento’s] body does is reflected. Even though we didn’t establish it here in California, we call it the Brown Act. Illinois has similar things which are about transparency in government, we still treat it as such. We are very deliberate about communicating. …
Q. What do you think the city’s role with Northwestern University? Talk about the experiences you’ve had working with colleges and universities.
Ramos: The city of Baltimore has the University of Maryland as well as Johns Hopkins. We are only 11% of the state’s population but make up almost 70% of the [state’s] tax-exempt land. First, I want to recognize that it is a good thing to have these institutions in the city. They do provide sometimes [a city’s] current and the future residents. They provide, in some cases, world-class services to their customers.
But I think it’s about balance. It’s about understanding what the points of leverage are … so that the city could go in prepared to negotiate something like a payment in lieu of taxes or pilot program, [and] have a full understanding of what the institution is providing.
We also don’t want to take a sledgehammer and a scalpel to the process, because you might catch a local nonprofit or local church that could be impacted by a policy decision. So I think it’s about understanding all of those things – the value they provide, the gap between the value they provide and how much that their tax payment would be without the tax-exempt status.
It’s holding them accountable to commitments that they’ve made in the past and then understanding those points of leverage to make sure that the city is getting the best possible deal.
Jasso: So first of all, I recognize that the presence of a university like Northwestern is a great international institution. It’s a plus; it’s a huge asset; it’s a huge intellectual base. It employs a lot of people directly in Evanston.
But it also has the potential to be an albatross, or at least perceived as an albatross by the community, because it doesn’t pay property taxes in general. And this is not unique to Evanston. Here in Sacramento we have two large state institutions that sit within the city of Sacramento. We have Sacramento State, which is part of the California state system. And we have the medical campus for the University of California Davis, which is the third-largest university [as part of the University of California] and a major research institution.
So fundamentally, I do approach it that the university is an asset. But I also realized that in that asset being there, there are many residents that don’t necessarily see the benefit of the university being in the community. So I think part of it is the conversation and a real working relationship with the university; figure out how the university can be leveraged to the benefit of Evanston, in terms of job creation that actually stays in Evanston, business creation that stays in Evanston.
And No. 1, so one of the things we’ve done here with the University of California Davis is pursuing a billion-and-a-half-dollar investment in basically a life sciences co-location campus, that they’re fostering private businesses of spinoffs from the university and are generating jobs. So we expect that process to generate about 5,000 direct jobs.
Q. What is your view of the use of debt in terms of how to pay for spending in a city budget?
Ramos (only): So I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t be using debt to cover gaps from year to year. I think that the city needs to have sound financial policies that develops a fund balance, or a rainy-day fund that is able to be used to bridge an unexpected facility malfunction or a weather event, a natural disaster. One of the things that I’ve worked on with the finance department and the IT [Information Technology] department is making sure that we’re matching the debt instrument to the life cycle of the investment. So we had for many years been using general obligation 20-year bonds to pay for IT. That doesn’t make any sense because [the particular technology item] has a three-to-five-year useful life. So we made sure that we worked with our Treasury Department and our debtors to be able to create that shorter-term financing so that we’re keeping the most modern technology throughout the city.”
Q. You may be aware there’s a recently passed TIF [tax increment finance district] in the Fifth Ward in Evanston. How have the TIFs that you have worked on improved affordable housing and/or reduced poverty?
Jasso (only): I do a lot of TIF programming. I developed and ran the program in D.C. I headed up the area of the City of Chicago that had TIFs and no city in the United States uses TIFs as much as Chicago does. … I first start off with the fundamental premise that a TIF is a tool. A TIF does not make a good project bad or does not necessarily make a bad project good. [It] is a way of financing projects. … I think there’s a lot of reasons to think about how you use the tool and make sure that, when you use the tool, you’re getting the objective that you want to get out of it. I think Illinois was right not to get rid of the tool. There’s been a lot of conversations in Illinois of how to reform the TIF so that it truly does benefit residents in terms of jobs, as well as other things that the community needs – supporting small businesses is an example that comes to mind – and not simply funding projects, which are great. The project looks great, but it’s hard to see what is the direct benefit for residents.
The interviews with Evanston’s two city manager finalists will be replayed on Evanston’s Channel 16 (found on the city’s website, cityofevanston.org), on Wednesdays at 8:30 a.m., Fridays at 9:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Jan. 23.