Central Street Neighbors Association President Jeff Smith (right) interviews Sixth Ward Council member Tom Suffredin during a Jan. 31 virtual town hall. (Screenshot)

On Monday night, the Central Street Neighbors Association held a virtual town hall on Zoom, where CSNA President Jeff Smith, a former mayoral candidate, sat down with Sixth Ward Council member Tom Suffredin for a wide-ranging conversation about issues facing the city.

Nearly 50 local residents joined the call for the “hot mic night,” as CSNA’s event announcement described the Jan. 31 discussion between Smith and Suffredin. The gathering offered CSNA members the chance to see an elected official like Suffredin in a more candid, casual setting than in the sometimes tense council chambers. 

Among other topics, Suffredin and Smith bantered about local businesses, parking ticket woes and tree ordinances. The two also grappled with heavier news like youth violence in Evanston, the ongoing independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment among seasonal lakefront staff and the search for a new City Manager. 

Notably, the independent counsel’s report on the sexual harassment scandal should come out in the near future, according to Suffredin. The RoundTable previously reported that the city’s separation agreement with former City Manager Erika Storlie, who departed in October, states that when it comes to the general public, “the Report and its contents are confidential and privileged and shall not be disclosed by the City unless required by law.”

Suffredin, on the other hand, said Monday night that he expects the report to become publicly available after the city has time to redact any private personal information. 

“This is going to be a thorough investigation, but I anticipate that by the end of this month, we will have something, and likely sooner,” Suffredin said. “It’s critical that the independence of the investigation be preserved, that as they go to print it, if they get new information that they feel empowered to investigate it, and whatever is produced that we act on whatever deficiencies it reveals.”

Storlie left her post as City Manager in the months after the sexual harassment allegations came to light, and her former Deputy City Manager Kelley Gandurski has served as the interim City Manager since October. The Evanston City Council hired a search firm to help find a new, permanent City Manager, but the leading candidate that emerged from that search ended up taking a job in Houston.

With nothing to show from that first attempt to find a City Manager, the best path forward is to restart the process with a new search firm that will hopefully deliver a robust field of highly qualified candidates, Suffredin said during Monday night’s conversation. 

“I think one of the lessons of this last search is that the marketplace is very competitive, and if we identify somebody that can get seven votes [the required supermajority of 10 council members], we should move quickly to get that person hired,” he said. “In the meantime, we have an interim City Manager in Kelley Gandurski who has done an excellent job in keeping things going, but long-term interims are not the best-case scenario.”

Suffredin also added that the city is in a tough spot right now because a number of senior staff members have departed over the last year or two, and many current employees at City Hall have taken on additional responsibilities. But because Evanston does not have a long-term City Manager in place, the council and other officials remain reluctant to make new hires for vacant positions, according to Suffredin.

During the rest of the fireside chat, Smith asked a number of questions about how and why the city chooses to spend money in the way that it does. For example, he brought up concerns among residents about wasting time and funding on looking into moving the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center to a different location or building.

“I think there’s a lot of long-time observers of Evanston who just have a lot of questions over what’s now a fairly long list of projects, and how did this get awarded to this person?” Smith said. “Why is there a recurring pattern of folks who weren’t the low bidder getting the contracts? Why did we have to spend so much? Why do we have to have a City Manager who’s making more than the Governor and a Corporation Counsel who’s making more than the Attorney General of Illinois?”

Suffredin said he appreciated Smith’s points, and he noted that these questions are worth bringing up in the next round of interviews with City Manager candidates. At least within the next several years, the council should “probably take a good, hard look at” compensation structures for city employees and the processes used for selecting projects or organizations that receive public funding, he said.

Smith and Suffredin also briefly touched on crime, youth violence and local trust in the Evanston Police Department. EPD has had an interim police chief since former Chief Demitrous Cook stepped down over the summer. After five teenagers were shot, one fatally, outside a gas station on Green Bay Road in November, City Council devoted some pandemic stimulus funding toward additional youth and young adult violence prevention programs. 

“I think the [support] infrastructure needs to exist outside the Police Department. It’s the Youth and Young Adult Program before we get to police involvement,” Suffredin said.

“Our Police Department is short-staffed right now, and we’re in a situation where it’s a tough time to be a cop in America, it’s a very competitive job market and other communities are offering tremendous financial incentives for officers to leave. I think overall, the community has trust in the police, but we all know how fragile that can be. It’s policing in America, not just the Evanston community.”

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...