With the Evanston City Council still negotiating with its chosen city manager candidate, some local activists are expressing disappointment in the selection process, maintaining the third time the city has gone through the search was even less transparent than the previous two.
After a series of closed-door sessions, Evanston City Council members announced on May 13 their intent to appoint Ann Arbor Assistant City Administrator John Fournier as the next city manager.
But no official vote on Fournier has yet been scheduled, Mayor Daniel Biss said May 17, as the city is still in talks with him.
The city has been without a full-time manager since October 2021, when Erika Storlie stepped down from the job she had held for barely a year. At the time, city officials had engaged an outside firm to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct in the Evanston lifeguard program.
The May 13 release from the city announcing Fournier’s selection said he had led programs including a multi-modal transportation infrastructure program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and before that finance and parking initiatives in Pittsburgh, where he served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor Bill Peduto.
The Community Alliance for Better Government (CABG) and other groups have been vocal during the search, raising concerns about citizen engagement in the process.
In a statement May 16, CABG member groups, including Reclaim Evanston, the Citizens Network for Protection and EvanstonToo, said the City Council followed a selection process “shrouded in obscurity,” one that led to a selection “that least represents the interests of the people.”
“What we find distressing, it seems as though this process has become less transparent than it was the past few times,” said Lesley Williams, a board member with CABG, in a phone interview. “So it seems like we’re going in exactly the opposite direction of the way we should be going.”
CABG is a grassroots campaign that supports racial equity, government transparency and political leadership. The group has a leadership board made up of high-profile Evanston activists.
“We have several hundred people on our mailing list,” said Williams, former head of Adult Services for the Evanston Public Library. “And our job is really to get information out to the public … We’re putting information out there that other people don’t necessarily have the time and inclination to dig out for themselves.”
The activist groups had strongly lobbied for Snapper Poche, the other finalist, who is Program Director for the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, following candidate interviews at a May 3 virtual town meeting as well as with stakeholders and staff.
Fournier’s selection came after the 10-member Council, including the mayor, held several executive sessions, attempting to arrive at the seven votes necessary under city code to appoint a city manager.
Council members ordinarily take straw votes as part of the closed executive sessions to determine whether the level of support has been reached to move forward on an appointment.
CABG members had raised concerns about what they said was officials’ failure to keep the public informed. They also argued there were limited opportunities for public engagement in the city’s previous searches to find a full-time city manager.
In February, Council members turned to executive recruiting firm Stanton Chase to conduct a new search.
The move came after a previous search ended in failure when the top candidate accepted a job elsewhere before employment negotiations could begin.
After City Council approved Stanton Chase to conduct the search at their Feb. 14 meeting, several months went by where “there was a complete shutdown of information,” Williams said.
The city manager recruitment page, which the city maintains on its website to inform the public of developments on the search, was blank, she said.
CABG members learned information about the search, including the fact that six candidates had been invited to interview, only during a report Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma had given at a Fourth Ward meeting, she said.
Williams said surprised residents reacted by asking, “You’re talking to finalists?”
Betty Ester, co-founder and President of the Citizens Network of Protection, said she wondered what happened to the questionnaires residents were urged to fill out at the town meeting about their candidate preferences – which, they were told, would be published.
“To this day we don’t know where they are,” she said. With the previous search, after the town meeting, survey results were posted, she said.
Asked about the group’s concerns, Biss said Council members received a “ton of input” from constituents that Council members drew on in making their choice. “Which is great,” he added.