Last month the RoundTable revealed that City Manager Luke Stowe had sent a letter to the City Council with complaints that council members contributed to an “unhealthy work environment” for city staff. Council members are accused of “not correctly portray[ing] the accurate results of meetings,” “contacting different staff members … if they did not receive the answer they initially sought,” not defending staff from abusive comments by the public and “public criticism of staff.” Among the litany: that the “City Council typically does not ‘have their back’ regarding difficult or unpopular decisions in the community.”

Lesley Williams, president of the Community Alliance for Better Government. Credit: Richard Cahan

While no one should be subjected to harassment or abusive language, we think Stowe is shooting the messenger. The real question is, do Stowe and his staff have Evanston’s back?

Stowe accuses council of “not respecting the council-manager form of government,” but this criticism should more accurately be directed at staff. Under Evanston’s system of government, unelected officials do the majority of the work, with no mechanism for residents to hold them responsible. Our only choice is to go to our elected officials. Council members shoulder 90% of the risk and the blame for unpopular city actions, and we expect them to be vocal about “difficult or unpopular decisions.” City staff need to understand and respect that dynamic: When they hear from council members they are hearing from us.

Stowe complains that the staff and council members spread “misinformation” and rumors at council meetings. Rumors thrive in an atmosphere of distrust. If Stowe and the city staff are disturbed by inaccurate statements from the public, then they should make a point of responding regularly to public comment, something the Community Alliance for Better Government has urged for over two years. Instead of hiding from the public, they should be engaging and informing residents about major decisions. In the absence of information, misinformation will fill the void.

And speaking of information, staff feel that council members are sharing too much information with the public, information “that should only be discussed in executive sessions.” Yet why is so much city business connected behind closed doors? Executive sessions are necessary for discussing personnel or legally sensitive matters, but the City Council seems to go into executive session with alarming frequency. Perhaps a review of the guidelines for executive sessions is in order to ensure that decisions affecting the public are not being made in the dark of secrecy.

Stowe seems to believe that the pressures of responding to the public and council are so weighty that our city staff will soon be quitting en masse, noting that “unemployment rates are at a 53-year low.” While there are many wonderful employees at COE, an astonishingly high number, 80%, do not live here and thus do not have a personal stake in the decisions they make. City policies do not affect their families and neighbors; they are not directly answerable to the public and can safely isolate themselves behind the walls of 2100 Ridge. Yet as recently as 2021, there were over 2,700 unemployed Evanston residents. Surely, the city might be able to find among them, as well as from our pool of recent Northwestern grads, enough qualified people invested in Evanston to replace the malcontents. It is high time to start incentivizing Evanston residence for city staff.

We do not want the City of Evanston to be a hostile place to work, but it shouldn’t be a hostile place to live either. “Civility” is all well and good, but not when it is used as an excuse for silencing valid complaints and dissent.

Lesley Williams,
President, Community Alliance for Better Government,
writing on behalf of the board

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  1. Thank you Lesley for your thoughtful comments and insights. I sincerely believe that many issues would resolve themselves in our city if the Council instituted a hiring policy that would preference Evanston residents or those who live outside of Evanston but attended our schools. I worked for the City of Evanston and was often shocked at the level of disdain some staff have for our community. That isn’t saying that many staff don’t love working here – there are many that do great work. But we have a sizable minority of staff that take our dollars but feel negatively about our community. We must elect representatives that understand the needs of this community. It’s our fault that we have such a dysfunctional City Council. I am looking forward to working with you and the Community Alliance for Better Government to elect people that are pro-community.

  2. There is not a lot I agree with Lesley Williams, president of the Community Alliance for Better Government, about. However, on this point, she is 100% correct.

    How can we have a great city when 80% of the city staff does not live in Evanston? Our city manager also does not live here and, frankly, sometimes decisions made by the mayor and the council seem so antithetical to Evanston that I think they must all live somewhere else as well.

    Evanston has many different factions all vying in their own way to make Evanston a greater place to live. This city has so many great assets – the lakefront and beaches, Northwestern, the EL and the Metra, and proximity to Chicago, just to name a few – that it should be the jewel of the Northshore. Sadly though, our elected officials, city staff, and tax-paying citizens do not communicate well with each other, and our beautiful city is suffering.

  3. Lesley Williams’ letter is on target, but the council made this situation. After four costly and unsuccessful city manager searches, the council gave up and after passing over several good outside candidates selected a member of staff. In the last search, it was reported that after consulting with staff, the council decided not to appoint the outside candidate. That was no surprise. It is well known that the inmates prefer to run the institution. Mr. Stowe’s memo to the council is no surprise.

  4. Dear Lesley, (and the RoundTable for printing this)

    Thank you for this respectful analysis illuminating a situation that has, in my opinion, began to spin out of control beginning with the Wally Bobkiewicz administration and the vacuum left after his departure. Surely Mr. Stowe deserves some slack coming from an inside IT leadership role to now managing the “whole ball of wax” of our community. I believe your letter addresses and offers valuable citizen perspective on what has become a problem in the community… certainly staff spending vast sums of taxpayer “treasure” without any skin-in-the-game is troublesome.
    I feel strongly that it is high time our community engage a professional independent Inspector General and/or a Taxpayer Advocate to safeguard the community from fiscal recklessness as evident by the many recent projects that have fueled such discontent.
    I will strive to offer solutions, whenever possible to civic undertakings… I hope our civil staff will at least entertain them.

    Respectfully submitted, Brian G. Becharas