Editor’s note: Early this week the city and the RoundTable held a town hall feature Mayor Daniel Biss to discuss the city manager position – the search, the importance and why the process of finding a new city manager has failed twice and is now in its third iteration in the last 14 months. Here the RoundTable takes a brief look at the city manager post and its pertinence to Evanston.

In March 2021, shortly after two incumbent council members were eliminated in the municipal primary elections, a newly formed organization named Evanston Together LLC began distributing mailers to Evanston voters.

Their main issue: Certain candidates’ alleged support for replacing Evanston’s council-manager form of government with a stronger mayoral system.

Pixabay stock image Credit: Pixabay stock image

The change still hasn’t happened but the topic continues to come up in the occasional committee meeting and in local discourse – especially since Evanston has not had a permanent city manager in nearly a year. But despite being the most common form of city government in the country, how the council-manager system actually works and how it differs from alternate forms can often be confusing.

To help out, here is a simple introduction to Evanston’s city government: who holds power, how they get it, how they interact, what alternatives are available and how Evanston has fared without a permanent city manager.

Council, mayor and manager

Evanston adopted the council-manager system in 1952, and it divides municipal governance between three positions:

  • A nine-member city council, elected from geographic wards to four-year terms.
  • A mayor, elected by the city at large to four-year terms.
  • A city manager, hired and dismissed by the city council and the mayor.

The city council is Evanston’s legislative body and votes on ordinances and resolutions to create and change the city’s policies, programs and laws. Regular meetings are held twice a month, and council members also sit on a variety of committees that meet separately to discuss specific policy areas. The council also provides final approval for all city expenses and liabilities, though they do not draft the city’s annual budget.

The mayor is Evanston’s nominal executive, representing Evanston outside the city and presiding over all city council meetings.

Compared to the other two positions, Evanston mayors are comparatively weak: They hold neither the administrative power to run the city government nor the executive power to enforce city laws and ordinances. Although they can veto council votes (which the council can override with a two-thirds majority), they can normally only vote to break a tie and to hire or dismiss a city manager.

This leaves most executive power and all administrative power to the city manager.

Described by Mayor Daniel Biss as a sort of “CEO of the City of Evanston,” the city manager is responsible for running the city’s day-to-day operations and carrying out its policies and laws. The manager controls the hiring and dismissal of all city staff, drafts and amends the annual budget, signs contracts with external parties, runs city programs and attends council meetings to participate in discussion and share requested information.

Professional and nonpartisan

In their This is Evanston guidebook, the Evanston League of Women Voters says the intent of the city manager system is to vest administrative power in “a competent administration via professional staff who carry out their duties apart from partisan politics.” These two qualities, professionalism and non-partisan political separation, are key to understanding how the city manager is different from the council and the mayor.

For starters, the city manager is not elected by Evanston voters.

Instead, managers are hired as city employees. Their hiring requires at least two-thirds majority of council members and the mayor in a combined vote. (The vote was once required to be a seven out of ten majority. But was changed to be a “two-thirds majority” by a vote at the council’s July 11 meeting. In addition, elected officials in Evanston cannot serve as city manager at the same time, a separation of powers emphasized by Biss at a town hall sponsored by the RoundTable on July 12.

“This form of government was set up … to insulate the management of government from political interference,” Biss said. “The point here is to not have the [administrative] decision-maker be the guy who then has to run for office and raise money and get political support.”

City managers also serve indefinitely, only leaving office by resignation, death or dismissal by another two-thirds council vote. This frequently results in city managers working with different councils and mayors across their tenures: Out of the eight permanent city managers in Evanston’s history before 2019, five served for at least eight years and another two served for at least four. 

And while professionalism can mean evaluating candidates’ experience and skills when hiring, it also refers to the commitment the job requires. Council members and the mayor are considered part-time employees, and their salaries are set every four years by a committee of appointed residents. Currently, Biss is paid $25,317 and city council members are paid $15,990 annually.

Meanwhile, city managers are full-time city employees directing full-time staff. They’re also one of the highest-paid city employees each year: Former city manager Erika Storlie was budgeted a $250,781 salary in 2021, and the recently resigned Kelley Gandurski was budgeted $181,529 as interim manager in 2022.

At Tuesday’s town hall, Biss stressed that the qualities voters look for in their council members and mayor are different from what qualities make a good city manager. He said because of this, selecting a city manager is better through an interview and hiring process rather than an election.

“As a voter, when I go to the polls, I’m really good at picking people who share my values or share my vision, who have the experience that I’m looking for in a leader,” Biss said. “But I don’t think I’m that great at picking someone who’s good at the kind of brass tacks of people management, because it’s hard to express that skill in a campaign.”

Weighing other options

Despite its 70-year history, the council-manager form is far from settled law in Evanston politics. State law provides two alternatives to consider: the commission form and the strong mayor form.

In the commission form, voters directly elect commissioners to individually direct city departments and functions, as well as collectively form a city council. So while each commissioner has equal power on the council to set policy, only one will implement those policies in this or that department. East Peoria is an example of this form in Illinois, though fewer than 1% of cities nationwide use it, according to the National League of Cities.

The form more frequently discussed in Evanston is the strong mayor form, which gives the mayor the full-time job of running the city government and carrying out city policies and laws.

This makes the mayor a more active participant in creating policy than the council-manager form, while also separating the mayor more from the city council due to holding executive power. Chicago is an example of a strong mayor government, with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her administration drafting the city’s budget and advancing her policy agenda to Chicago’s city council.

Biss said Tuesday that while the city has struggled during the prolonged city manager search, he doesn’t see this as a problem with the council-manager form itself. He said the city can still operate well under its current form, once the current lack of a permanent city manager is resolved.

“Tonight, I am at least as enthusiastic and hopeful about what we can accomplish in this form of government, if it’s working properly, as I was when I decided to run for mayor,” Biss said.

Alex Harrison

Alex Harrison joins the RoundTable for the summer in between his undergraduate and graduate studies at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. Alex Harrison’s pros and cons of the City Manager form of government make it clear what the citizenry wants in a City Manager.
    I look for the quality that the person would be open and will to be engaging in conversation with the residents.
    They would care about the residents’ problems in the neighborhood and the City and take care of them.
    I keep looking for the quality of being open and conversing with the residents.
    The City Manager would work to hear our request and work to correct the problems.
    In my opinion, the City did have a City Manager that offered those qualities to City. When he left, the service returned to the old way. Why? Because we got a new City Manager.

  2. This was very enlightening. Thanks so much for writing this explanation of the various forms of city government used most commonly in our country.