It has been a great year for the city, said Mayor Daniel Biss, leading off his State of the City address on May 23.
“There’s been a number of really exciting developments and personnel at the City of Evanston that have really enabled us to begin to take off in our achievement regarding our most significant promises,” Biss said Tuesday.
The mayor, who has passed the halfway mark of his first term in office, highlighted a number of them in a nearly hourlong speech before a full audience at Evanston SPACE.
Crucial appointments …
Biss started with the City Council’s elevation of Luke Stowe, a longtime assistant administrator with the city, to the city manager position in August of last year. Stowe’s appointment came after three national searches where the city came close to hiring someone from the outside.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a steady hand leading our staff in the execution of this community’s values,” said the mayor, who is getting his first dose of local government after serving in the Illinois legislature from 2011 to 2019.
Biss described Stowe as someone who is “very open, very inclusive, and the way that he approaches his work and the people around him – it’s just made an enormous difference, and you feel it every single day.”
The mayor also spoke about other personnel changes, pointing to the promotion of Sarah Flax, like Stowe a longtime administrator with the city. Flax moved up to the city’s community development director post in March.
“[The] Community Development Department is an overworked and understaffed group of heroes,” said Biss, who unlike council members maintains an office in the Civic Center and interacts with employees on a regular basis.
… and elections
The mayor included the April election of Council Members Krissie Harris (2nd Ward) and Juan Geracaris (9th Ward) in his list of positive developments too.
The mayor had appointed the two to temporarily fill council seats after incumbents in those wards stepped down.
They won their elections with large mandates, he said, “because their residents saw the work they’ve done, saw their commitment to public service [and] saw their commitment to bring people together to actually solve problems and move our city forward.”
Biss acknowledged his endorsement of the candidates was a bit controversial, with some maintaining a mayor should not be “involved in campaigns like that.”
To questions of that sort, Biss told his audience, “I feel like stating my position on important questions in our community when I think that there’s a lot at stake is not just something I can do, I think it’s something I should do. … It’s really part of the contract that I entered into with the community, as someone who was asked to be a leader, to weigh in, to share my thoughts.
“Not to expect everyone to agree – not to expect people to take direction from me. This is Evanston, after all,” he added, to a murmur of assent from his audience.
“But to make sure that when something seems significant, when the stakes seem high, I can explain why I believe that is – and not to withhold that information from people when they’re making an important choice.
“And so, that’s the approach I’ve taken the last two years, that’s the approach that I’ll continue taking, and I know that is something that some people love, and some people love less, but I wouldn’t feel like I was doing my job if I didn’t follow through on that commitment,” Biss said.
On to key issues
“And we have now in place the team that enables us to really start running aggressively on key difficult important issues that are essential to substantiate the values of this community.”
One of those things, Biss said, was the council’s May 22 vote approving the permanent usage of the Margarita Inn by longtime advocacy group Connections for the Homeless as a shelter for unhoused individuals.
“This [approval] is something that is really, really meaningful if we are going to make good on our commitments regarding affordable housing, if we are going to make good on our commitments regarding social justice, economic justice and equity,” the mayor said, “and something that was difficult, something that was difficult in a variety of ways. It was technically difficult. It was emotionally complex. It was politically difficult, but it was the right thing to do.”
Biss thanked council members, who he said did the right thing on the issue, “the kind of thing that a lot of elected officials are scared to do.”
News from the lakefront
Some other personnel changes also have brought change, the mayor said.
Audrey Thompson, who was named permanent parks and recreation director in April 2022, “has been transforming things, making an enormous difference cleaning up processes and working to make the entire department open and inclusive.”
One of the changes will be on view when the beaches open, the mayor said.
The lifeguards, who return May 27, are not going to be under the direction of the Parks and Recreation Department, but under the direction of the Fire Department.
Biss said the city will manage the lakefront through a collaboration among a large number of people, including Thompson and Fire Chief Paul Polep.
The officials will be figuring out a way “to ensure, first of all, a professional environment, where everyone is safe and respected and treated with the dignity that every human being deserves,” said the mayor, who came into office at the time a lakefront scandal was unfolding, as female lifeguards reported wide-scale sexual misconduct on the part of male supervisors.
Bag ban, guaranteed income, recovery
Some other developments the mayor touched on:
• The City Council’s approval, also the night before, of a ban on single-use plastic bags issued at the point of sale. Believed to be the first in the state, the ban is expected to go into effect Aug. 1.
“It’s important, it’s necessary and it was done slowly, because we wanted to get input from a variety of stakeholders,” Biss said. He said the action “will also be critical in enabling us to achieve our goals.
“But we are not done,” he stressed. “We’ve got big agenda items this year – improving our building codes, spacing away [moving away] from natural gas in new construction. These are really cool things that again [are] … not going to be easy, they’re not going to be uncontroversial. But they’re working if we believe in our climate objectives.”
• A guaranteed income program that kicked off at the end of 2022, in which 150 residents began receiving $500 each month.
Participants no longer have “to choose between food and medicine, or medicine and rent.” He said a key element has been the city’s partnership with Northwestern University, which has provided researchers looking into how the money affects the residents’ quality of life.
• Regarding the economic condition of the city, “financially we are in a remarkably strong position with significant surpluses that we’ve run in recent years, with a significant reserve available right now,” Biss said.
“That’s not all good news: Some of that’s because we were unable to fill the positions that we had budgeted for. Some of that’s great news, because of the economic growth and the revenues coming in higher than anticipated.”
Evanston’s economic challenges
At the same time, Biss said, “We have economic challenges ahead as we always have. Our pensions remain inadequately funded. We have growing personnel costs – of course, as necessary, practically, but also morally, I would argue, in a time of inflation like this.
“We’ve put ourselves in a financial position where I think we’ll be able to weather those challenges,” he said.
“We’ve seen a lot of important recovery signs in our downtown. I cannot tell you how much of my first-year-plus as mayor was spent fielding questions about the precise date of the reopening of the movie theater downtown.”
Biss cited the theater’s reopening, new restaurants debuting downtown and progress toward Northlight Theater’s return. “There is a lot of good happening here,” he said.
Evanston vs. Wilmette
The mayor referred to an email message he sent out a few months ago, warning that Evanston’s recovery will be different from that of Wilmette, whose downtown has increasingly popped up in community conversations as a comparison piece.
“And that comment was a real Rorschach test,” Biss said.
“Some people read it as a shot at Wilmette. And some people read it as a kind of abdication of ambition. And I regret to inform you all that it was neither of those things. We’re not better. We’re not worse. We’re just different. …
“Specifically, the Wilmette economic model, pre-pandemic, was really sitting on a one-legged stool of demand from their residents. The Evanston economic model was sitting on a three-legged stool: residents, the university and the downtown office population.”
Biss said that stool is being remade: The university, he said, is “more and more and more back,” with academic travel returning, but it’s not to pre-pandemic levels.
“And, frankly, the office situation just is not what it was in February of 2020,” he said. “And I don’t think anybody still now can tell you what a long-term post-COVID remote working equilibrium is going to look like, but what I do think what we can all say with real confidence is it’s not going to just be what it was before.
“And that means that economic success for a place that used to be, in part, reliant on a particular number of office workers is going to be relying on something else.”
Biss said Evanston Thrives, a report the city commissioned, ‘”digs into the question of how to build a post-pandemic downtown, and it relies on other ingredients that relies on people wanting to be downtown,” he said.
“It relies on events being downtown. It relies on residents, residential headcount downtown; it relies on all of these different things that are going to take time to completely put in place.
“But that gives us the opportunity to have a new version of even more vibrant downtown we’ve seen before, and I do believe we are on the path,” he said.
New police leadership
Biss also celebrated the hiring of Police Chief Schenita Stewart, whom Stowe appointed in September 2022.
“It has been an extraordinary privilege – no, real education – for me to work with her. First of all, we have in place a police chief who understands that there is not a contradiction between supporting your team and loving police work and being for reform.
“In fact, there is no version of reform that succeeds,” the mayor contended, “if it’s not implemented by someone who genuinely supports and loves her team and believes in good police work.”
He indicated that city efforts to find the right spot between effective policing and overpolicing are ongoing.
For instance, Biss said officials were looking at alternatives to pulling motorists over on traffic stops, where a citizen’s committee found evidence of racial disparities.
Stewart and her team have reduced which equipment violations qualify for traffic stops, Biss said, calling it a collaborative solution to “make our policing more racially equitable, more just, and free up our officers’ time to work on the issues that are in fact necessary to keep our community safe.”
Counteracting despair around violence
Tragedies such as the fatal shooting at Clark Street Beach several weeks ago, Biss said, “have become repeated so often that there is sometimes an instinct that even if we feel it with the depths of our soul, there’s still nothing we can really do to change it. That’s not true,” said the mayor.
He pointed to the work of the city’s outreach team, which seeks to put youth on a safer path. “We’ve not only expanded our youth outreach team, we’ve expanded our workforce development team; we understand that there’s what happens at the moment of a shooting – and we have to do everything we can to stop that – but there’s also the social determinants that include economic despair.
“And we believe that our workforce development team, which is growing and doing great work under Nathan Norman [the city’s workforce development coordinator] is an important part of changing the trajectory of violence in this community,” he said.
Still, he said, “This is a collaborative effort. If any one organization – whether it’s a police department or a city or any of our extraordinary nonprofit partners in violence prevention – thinks they can do it alone, it will fail. We all have to all be doing this together as a community.”
‘Surrounded by anger, surrounded by combat’
The mayor slipped in some personal thoughts about his job at the end of the address.
“I love this job, and I’m lucky to have it. But I’m not going to lie and say that it’s never lonely. And it’s – it feels lonely sometimes, because sometimes I feel like I’m just surrounded by anger, surrounded by combat.
“I feel like I’ve spent all this time these two years trying to bring people together and turn down the temperature in an environment that doesn’t always feel like it wants the temperature turned down.”
Holding up a cellphone, he charged that smartphones in particular and social media apps in general are contributing to the atmosphere of polarization.
“If you think about what [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg’s profit motive is, it is to keep your eyeballs on his screen,” he said. “That’s all he wants. He’s not selling anything that you’re buying; he’s selling your eyeballs, and he wants as much of them as possible. And the way to keep them is make you afraid, and to make you angry and to make you envious.”
He pointed to the City Council’s action May 22 to support District 65’s application to build a school in the Fifth Ward, as a move in the opposite direction.
“The single best antidote to a built neighborhood that separates people, is a neighborhood school, that people walk to together. It builds community, connects neighbors, builds social capital,” he said.
The council’s action, voting to support District 65’s application, rights “a half century of wrong,” said the mayor, to applause from the audience.
He also saluted the passage of the city’s Fair Workweek ordinance “because I believe that a worker not only has the right to a living wage, they also have the right to a life that gives them the capability to invest time in their family, to invest time in their friends, to invest time in their relationships and build healthy balance that strengthens communities.”
In conclusion, Biss said, “As long as I am mayor, the City of Evanston will do whatever it can to facilitate our being together.”
To view Mayor Biss’ State of the City address in full visit the city’s YouTube channel. The video is also scheduled to air on Channel 16. A shortened version of the speech is also available.
This address to the city is music to my ears, especially the aspirational description of community, which feels possible in Evanston.
I really appreciate the step-by-step description of the programs underway in the city, some of which I was not familiar.
I do my best to be on board with our city being and becoming a real and trusting community. This fine address makes me want to contribute and participate even more.
IMO the Mayor’s “State of the City” pontificating is really more a dolorous “litany of failure” than anything else… he does not speak for me *or* my values…
He and his gang of comrades – in – arms are doing great damage to this city, and the sooner they are cast aiside the better…
Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident
You rock Mayor, it’s not an easy job, but I believe you are doing everything you can to bring Evanston back. If you build it, they will come. Keep up the good work.
Mayor Biss does not acknowledge the deterrent to business posed by parking fees and tickets. Residents and visitors must pay $1 to shop at the local hardware store, or $4 to patronize a local restaurant. Barriers to business, including parking fees should be put aside to help jump start economic growth. What if having paid the wheel tax allows for free parking in Evanston? It would make it less burdensome to shop locally.
“it feels lonely sometimes, because sometimes I feel like I’m just surrounded by anger, surrounded by combat….”
Well, Mayor Biss… LOWER THE TAXES and you will be loved forever!!!!
So, as the Mayor discusses the economic challenges facing Evanston, will the CFTH Margarita shelter now be off the property tax rolls?