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Former Ninth Ward City Council member Cicely Fleming ran unopposed in last year’s municipal election, the only council member to do so.
Now, barely 10 months later, eight candidates have stepped forward to fill Fleming’s seat.
Seven of these took part in a forum at the Civic Center on Feb. 17 led by Mayor Daniel Biss. Fleming, a strong independent voice on the council, announced at the end of last year she would be stepping down from her seat.
She cited the recent death of her mother, Marsha Cole, a respected housing activist, as figuring in her decision.
Under state law, Biss, with consent of the City Council, will fill the seat, and the newly appointed council member will serve until the 2023 municipal election. The winner of the 2023 contest will then serve the remainder of Fleming’s term, which expires at the next municipal election in April 2025.
At the forum, the mayor said he hoped to recommend his choice to the council in time for the Feb. 28 council meeting.
But he might not have an easy time, he admitted at the night’s conclusion.
The candidates performed smoothly at the event, even those with little or no experience in city government, sharing compelling personal stories and adding dashes of humor.
“This has been a very aggravating evening for me,” Biss said at the night’s close, “because you all have made my choice extremely difficult. This has been very, very impressive.”
The mayor kept the interview low-key, stressing at the start, “It’s not a debate. It’s not supposed to be a high-pressure environment – it’s an opportunity for all of you to introduce yourselves to the public, an opportunity for us to continue the dialogue that we’ve been having in correspondence and offline as well.”
The questions, culled from ones submitted by the community, gave the candidates the chance to present their credentials, discuss how they plan to communicate with constituents, and reflect on an issue on which they might lead.
Here is a smattering of the responses. The full interview can be watched on the city’s YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/Ejz6rQsC41k.
Juan Geracaris: He has been a resident of the Ninth Ward for 14 years. Altogether, he has lived, studied and worked in Evanston for the past 29 years. Geracaris, who responded in both English and Spanish at the forum, is Vice President of Evanston Latinos, a nonprofit group that was formed to serve the Latinx community. He is also one the founders of Evanston Skates, the group working with the city on a new skate park.
Of transparency, he said, “One of the things I really thought was important was that to do this, I want to make people feel like the city is working for them.”
If named, he said, he plans to report to constituents about his votes and the reasons for them and establish lines of communication “so that if people want to talk to me about my vote, I’m more than open to discuss that with them.”
Greater accessibility is also on his list. Some whose native language is not English may watch city meetings “and there’s no translator – that’s a huge problem,” he pointed out.
“And people wonder why people feel disenfranchised, and don’t show up.” He said his ability to speak Spanish will be an advantage in that regard.
Stacia Campbell: “I first arrived in Evanston in March of 1995,” she said, “with a cat, a bicycle and a suitcase. I had moved from Southern California, a land with no sidewalks, no front porches, and where you do not need to know your neighbors.”
Campbell is a first-generation college graduate. Her work is in college counseling, and she now supports several Evanston Township High School student-athletes as a college counselor for the Beyond Sports Foundation. That foundation assists student-athletes from under-resourced communities in the Chicago area to realize their academic and professional goals.
Composting part of the picture
“I’m green to the ways of local government but I have transferable skills in spades,” she said at the forum.
A special interest is composting. “How might Evanston create a culture of composting? How might Evanston help citizens grow food within walking distance of home? How can we repurpose public space to make this happen?” she asked.
She noted that the new person appointed will begin serving right in the middle of a very important job search – the one for Evanston’s next city manager. “And I think it’s going to require some thinking that is really, maybe outside the box. It’s going to require some big philosophical thought. It’s like, ‘Is this about a particular specialization in managing the city; or is this about management, and that sort of strategic planning – that long view that you need and then that ability to communicate to all parties who are involved?’”
Dan Coyne: With his wife Emily, Coyne moved to Evanston from Portland, Oregon, 30 years ago and raised two children.
“And I’m proud to say, despite my parenting deficits, they turned out to be two pretty cool adults,” he quipped.
Describing his career arc, Coyne said, “In the last 30 years, I’ve tried to strengthen communities in my circles through relational problem-solving as a public and private team member – through my board service and employment and elected position at Ridgeville Park District. Currently, I’m working as a mental health therapist in Evanston/Skokie District 65. I am very, very lucky and fortunate to be able to teach 500 little ones, our future leaders, how to be peacemakers in our community,” he said.
On the city side, he said, “Our police officers are putting in 12-hour shifts, but we expect them to remain professional 24/7. We have Fire Department personnel minus an ambulance unit that they lost a number of years ago. And so they are spread thin. We have employees that are feeling pressure left and right. We may have now between 700 and 800 employees. We have to find a way to make sure they feel empowered to implement our policy and procedures. And that’s easier said than done.”
A passion for affordable housing
He has served on several boards and is currently vice president of the Reba Development Corp., “trying to bring more affordable housing into the city.
“I have to be honest, the most passionate aspect of my work right now is affordable housing,” he said at the forum. “How can we help our citizens afford to live here? We’re not all earning $200,000 or $300,000 a year. Not all of us can afford $4,000 rent. … I think that if we can find ways to help our neighbors to actually buy a home and build equity, that is the surest way for them to pass on the same.”
Kathelyn Hayes: For the past 35 years, she has worked in community organizations as a partner, across Chicago and Cook County, dealing with government entities, social service agencies and private organizations. “I want to be an advocate for the Ninth Ward, because I understand that we need collaborative community investments, using powerful creative solutions,” she said.
Hayes has longtime roots in Evanston, having been born and educated here. “I went to Foster Elementary School during the time when there was still segregation going on. We made that transition and then we will make more transitions coming up.”
After graduation, she worked at the Township of Evanston, the government of which was dissolved several years ago, and some of the functions of which were absorbed into city operations.
She worked under Fleming’s great-aunt, Edna Summers, who served for many years as the Township Supervisor.
“As one of her case managers for the General Assistance program, I’ve worked with national programs like Sisters of Care, [as well as] pilot programs that dealt with helping families and youth with mental health challenges while struggling to overcome stigmas and barriers,” Hayes said. She has also worked with CeaseFire, a violence-interruption program that incorporates public health solutions to guns and gangs and has spent 20 years as an advisory member of the board at Sankofa Safe Child Initiative.
Has seen both sides of housing issues
“I have worked in housing, and housing is a passion. And I was a first-generation home owner. For my immediate family, that is important, that is an issue of achievement, and dignity. And, well, that makes a difference. But I also have been in dire straits, where I was couch-surfing from pillar to post to try to make ends meet. And sometimes, many times, they didn’t.
“My main issue is public safety,” she added. “Because if you don’t feel safe, if you aren’t in a place of comfort, you won’t be able to achieve any of those issues.”
Frederic Goodwill: A 22-year resident of Evanston, 17 of them spent in the Ninth Ward, Goodwill grew up in Maine. “I’m the son of a Republican and a radical anti-war feminist. I love both my parents, but, like my two siblings, I fell firmly into the camp of my mom.”
He started his own landscaping business to work his way through school.
“I am what I consider to be a neighborhood lawyer now,” he said. “I do all kinds of everything and solve problems on a smaller level for individuals and local businesses. For 25 years prior, I was in a practice, mostly environmental law.
“When I was in law school, I did my law school law journal article on environmental justice, and there were very few books [on that subject] that came out during that time,” he said.
Focus on environmental and social justice
“But I focused my attention on civil rights, Native American issues, as well as environmental justice issues.” Environmental issues can be part of the same level of concerns driving the need for affordable housing, he said.
“When you think about affordable housing, you think about access to equity in the home, and also being able to get a mortgage – things like that,” he said. “But there are people who are living in homes right now that are facing a multitude of environmental issues. That, I think, is something to consider when we’re addressing this opportunity gap. Because in just a few years, six years, we’re supposed to develop by law, a plan to address the issue of lead pipes in our city [and] the impact the system has on those who are marginalized and those who don’t have the accident of birth that I had.”
“I was never close to any kind of industry, any kind of polluting industry,” he continued. “But we have a situation that has arisen where people don’t necessarily have access to those areas of our city that are away from or apart from those particular industries. That can cause problems that are multiple.”
He said his interest in serving on the council was also fueled by events of recent years, including “a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and a crisis of government legitimacy, brought out by the murder of George Floyd.
“And we’ve had recent incidents in our own town. We’ve had shootings on Green Bay Road. We had a shutdown recently at our own Evanston High School.”
Christopher Shawn Jones
A lawyer specializing in small business and zoning issues, Jones ran for the Ninth Ward Council seat five years ago, losing to Cicely Fleming. Before that, he served as an award-winning reporter with the Evanston RoundTable. His reporting helped uncover the issues in a soil-contamination dispute between the city and utility companies in James Park.
Jones moved to Evanston from Atlanta in 2005, “and I got the bright idea that if I wanted to learn something about community, I should write about it,” he said at the forum. “And that’s how, as a part-time job, I covered City Council for the RoundTable.
“So I have spent a lot of time in this building, watching the interactions of our council members, learning how the city works, studying those 800-page packets to be prepared to write articles,” he said.
His law office is on Church Street in downtown Evanston. His practice includes an appointment to the city’s Community Development Block Grant Committee which disperses funds to nonprofits and projects in income-qualified areas.
He also worked closely with Council member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, to form and serve on the Alternatives to Arrest Committee. “It’s a very important committee that did very good work in dealing with police interactions primarily,” he said. He also worked very closely with the Officer and Gentlemen Academy, “which is a wonderful organization here within our Evanston Police Department and within the city that does mentoring work with at-risk Black youth starting in middle school,” he said.
“But my passion is in small business development, and getting the butcher paper off those storefronts downtown,” Jones said at the forum. “Our property-tax burden is a big, big part of our affordable housing problem. Right now we generate $16 [million] to $18 million in sales tax revenues; we get a little over $6½ million from property tax revenues that go into our General Fund. If we increase our sales tax revenues, we don’t have to increase property taxes.
“We have an opportunity to have a brand-new and vibrant, exciting downtown Evanston that people want to come to,” he added. “We have a new movie theater coming in. We have the Northlight Theatre in the process of developing their idea. My passion is in working with small businesses so that people can realize their dreams.”
City on a Hill
“One of the things I do is I’m a small-business coach down at Hyde Park for Sunshine Enterprises,” Jones said at the forum. “And I work with predominantly minority entrepreneurs who are working hard and trying to realize their dream to start a new business.”
Locally, he said the goal is “employing more people, putting people to work creating that vibrant downtown ‘City on a Hill’ in Evanston that we all want.”
Sebastian Nalls: Nalls, a 21-year resident of the Ninth Ward, is close to graduating from Purdue University, where he is majoring in accounting and political science with a minor in sociology. He is best known, however, as a 21-year-old candidate running last year for mayor of Evanston, in a race won overwhelmingly by Daniel Biss. He has since turned to community activism.
Nalls said his parents moved to Evanston in 2001, looking to find a community that was removed from the busy life of Chicago.
“Instead, they found a community that’s filled with neighbors who’ve shaped me into the individual I am today; and for that I am so incredibly thankful,” he said. “For the past two years, residents have seen me on the campaign trail, at public comment [during City Council meetings] addressing issues facing Evanston residents, holding educational forums with the Community Alliance for Better Government to discuss complex issues, advocating for youth participation.”
In the political process, he has been working within the Governor’s Office of Equity to facilitate the implementation of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives for state agencies, boards and commissions across Illinois.
“Each of these experiences has expanded my critical thinking, organizational and leadership skills,” Nalls said. “I have devoted time, effort and energy into serving those around me. And this open City Council seat is giving an opportunity for the residents of Evanston to see positive change, addressing issues such as affordability, public safety, accountability and transparency, and community engagement.”
He said issues of immediate focus include the hiring of the next City Manager, working with City Council to negotiate payment-in-lieu-of-taxes programs for Northwestern University and other non-tax-paying bodies, building relationships between council staff and residents, and performing an equity analysis of all existing programs in preparation for the city’s next budget.
He said other goals include holding a Black and Brown solidarity event to prepare or to perform cultural exchanges and increase community relationships and participation in local government. He already checked one item off his list, he said, having created a website in English and Spanish that gives supports to residents.
Already out there
“During this process. I have had the opportunity to meet with hundreds of residents collecting over 150 signatures in support of this appointment,” Nalls said. “We’ve also held meet-and-greets, talking about issues ranging from the City Manager search to snow removal and parking tickets.
“The Ninth Ward needs a representative that leads with compassion, integrity and fortitude; has a proven record of advocating for residents; understands City Council; and has experience building relationships and balancing them; and, most importantly, knows and understands the issues that face our community,” said Nalls.
He also said, “It would be an honor to dutifully serve those who have uplifted me my entire life.”