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Editor’s note: This RoundTable story covers the reaction and questioning before, during and after the town hall meeting with the lone city manager candidate Carol Mitten. For a more detailed look at Mitten’s responses, please see this companion piece.
At a town hall meeting at the Morton Civic Center Thursday night, the lone candidate for the position of Evanston city manager defended her record as city administrator in Urbana, Ill.
In the past week since Carol Mitten was announced as the next possible city manager, she has come under scrutiny for allegedly violating the state’s Open Meetings Act and destroying police complaints.
Beginning her opening statement, Mitten said: “I’d like to introduce myself differently than I usually do in a professional setting since there’s a lot of information circulating out of Urbana that suggests things about me that are simply not true. The individuals who are spreading this information have a clear agenda, and that agenda means more to them than facts.”
The town hall meeting was moderated by Mayor Daniel Biss, who posed the public’s questions, both submitted ahead of time and made during the town hall, which lasted an hour. The small space was crowded with about 50 people, but the discussion aired on Zoom, the city’s YouTube channel and the city TV channel.
There were also virtual meetings scheduled in the Eighth Ward before the town hall and the Fifth Ward after. In those discussions, Eighth Ward council member Devon Reid did not hold back on his opinion of Mitten and his distress about the process when he spoke to his constituents before the town hall.
When Burns spoke to Fifth Ward residents after the town hall, Reid joined him, and the two were skeptical but more measured.
A bit of the hiring history
The City of Evanston announced last week that Mitten was the lone finalist for the position of city manager. Evanston has not had a permanent city manager in place for nearly 10 months, and two previous searches held this year ended without a final hire.
Going into Thursday’s conversation, though, several articles published by media outlets in the Urbana area began circulating through Evanston circles and community groups. Those articles allege Mitten and other Urbana city staff members violated the Open Meetings Act multiple times, failed to redact the name and home address of a resident in an online document and concealed police complaints.
After those allegations came to light, Evanston Fight for Black Lives, a local activist group reflecting “the values of the national Black Lives Matter Movement,” shared posts on social media encouraging residents to ask their council members to vote “no” on Mitten’s candidacy for city manager.
One of the specific incidents that Mitten addressed surrounded an opinion from the Illinois Attorney General that found the Urbana City Council, the mayor and Mitten violated the Open Meetings Act by not allowing residents to criticize specific employees during the public comment portion of council meetings.
Mitten said that around that time period in the fall of 2020, public comments were becoming openly hostile toward members of the city staff. As a result, Mitten and her team decided to prohibit critical remarks about specific employees during public comment to protect staff members.
In the end, though, the Urbana City Council got sued for that decision, and the state’s attorney general found that the city had violated the Open Meetings Act.
“We learned a hard lesson, and I still struggle sometimes with how to protect staff and how to create an environment that is civil, given that it’s their work space,” Mitten said. “They’re entitled to not work in a hostile work environment.”
Virtual and in-person atmospheres
At the virtual Eighth Ward meeting Thursday evening just before the town hall, Reid was very direct and said that while he believes Mitten is qualified for the role given her experience leading local government bodies, he is concerned about the lack of transparency alleged in the Urbana media articles.
Additionally, he said he also had concerns because Mitten was in the running during the last city manager search but pulled out because she did not want to participate in a public forum with multiple candidates, according to Reid.
“Carol Mitten withdrew herself precisely because she did not want to be part of public engagement, and quite frankly, the reason we are presenting a single candidate to the public now, and the reason that we’re rolling it out in a manner that I think is actually doing more harm than good, is because the candidate themselves, Carol Mitten, would not participate if there was a public process with multiple candidates,” Reid told his constituents at the Eighth Ward meeting. “This was kind of her terms, and that rings troublesome.”
As Evanston residents came into the council chambers for the town hall, Mitten and Biss could already see the apparent skepticism among attendees regarding Mitten’s candidacy for city manager. Several members of the public in the audience held signs with phrases like “This Mitten doesn’t fit,” among others.
Mitten also addressed questions about Urbana’s handling of an investigation into the use of force by a police officer on a 21-year-old woman in April 2020. In a disturbing YouTube video, the woman is seen trying to be restrained by three Urbana police officers as she resists being handcuffed. It seems she is being hit, punched and kicked by the officers, who are crouched over her as she yells.
The woman was ultimately charged with aggravated battery for allegedly punching and kicking an officer. An investigation conducted by an external firm hired by Urbana concluded that the officers did not violate any use of force policies in their interaction with her.
But many Urbana residents were outraged by the lack of discipline among the involved officers, and Mitten said at Thursday’s town hall that the city did review its use of force policy and committed to de-escalation as a result of the police incident with the woman.
“We had town halls where people could give feedback, and we had a number of occasions where we discussed the use of force policy with the council, even though that’s not a policy that the council votes on,” Mitten said. “We ended up adopting the 10 shared principles that have been put forward by the NAACP and the Illinois Chiefs of Police around a commitment to more sensitive policing. So there’s a lot of good things that came out from the incident, but not everybody was satisfied.”
Later in the meeting, Mitten asked the audience to consider that “there’s another side to the story” about her career and her record, and she said she wanted to meet with residents to discuss their concerns if given the opportunity. When Biss asked her how she would recruit a diverse city staff, she said the first step is always building a welcoming and inclusive environment where people actually want to work.
Reid said after the town hall that he will meet directly with Mitten on Friday, July 29. The council is expected to further discuss Mitten’s candidacy in the coming days, and Reid said he wants to make sure the council does not rush into any decisions simply because Evanston has gone so long without a permanent city manager.
After the town hall, Fifth Ward Council member Bobby Burns hosted an online meeting where ward residents discussed Mitten’s responses. Reid was also on the call and expressed his concerns.
Burns agreed with residents that Mitten “could have done a little bit better job making her points clear,” but the two council members – Reid and Burns – showed her more grace as they unpacked her answers on the late-night Google Meet call.
Two people on the call voiced concern about Mitten’s response to the town hall meeting question: “Who does she serve, the city council or the residents?” Mitten said she serves the people as represented by elected officials, and Burns agreed.
“Her response was ‘the residents,’ but not just one resident, all the residents,” Burns said, adding that trying to reach hard-to-reach residents is one of his main jobs. “[No single resident] represents all of Evanston; you represent yourself… and I agree with her on this. Even the ones who may not speak… even the ones who may not go to a candidate town hall.”
One person on the call worried about accusations they read online about Mitten trying to limit the number of public comments Urbana citizens could make at city meetings. In response, Burns said that the most egregious parts of that controversy was the fault of Urbana’s mayor, not Mitten. He added that Evanstonians should do research to determine who was at fault.
For example, while the Urbana mayor was wrong to turn off microphones mid-public comment, Mitten adopted a policy – after receiving legal counsel, Burns added – in which the public couldn’t directly name politicians when they were making attacks at meetings. And while she also discouraged public recording of meetings, she immediately repealed that policy afterward.
“To me, doing something on the fly without consulting legal counsel at all, just doing it because you’re frustrated, is different than someone consulting legal counsel about a perceived issue,” Burns said. “It’s not to say it’s not problematic, but it’s just different.”
Some of the concerns voiced on the call also surrounded issues outside of the purview of the city manager. But Burns gave a general statement to those on the call, saying, “I’m not as worried about every flaw, especially if the person is willing to acknowledge those flaws and is willing to grow in those areas. … because we’re here, we’re the council, we have a lot of power to advance things.”
RoundTable reporter Debbie-Marie Brown also contributed to this story.