Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, City Manager in Petersburg, Va.
Submitted photo
Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, City Manager in Petersburg, Va. Submitted photo

The three finalists for Evanston’s City Manager position shared their credentials and responded to a wide range of questions at a public forum Oct. 7 as the City’s search for a new top executive entered its final stages. 

Vying for the City’s top administrative post,  Erika Storlie, Evanston’s Interim City Manager; Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, City Manager in Petersburg, Va.; and Maria Peoples, Ph.D., Deputy County Manager in Coconino County, Ariz.; shared compelling personal narratives and then took turns responding to a wide range of issues at the forum, held virtually over Zoom because of social distancing constraints.

The forum was the first chance for community members to see the candidates in action since the City Council  began winnowing down an initial applicant field of 70 candidates a few weeks ago.

Since then, Council members have been holding their evaluation seasons in closed executive sessions.

With aldermen meeting in another closed session today to discuss the issue, some community members are concerned the Council members, all of whom face election next year, will make a selection without residents given more time to learn about the candidates.

“The discussion tonight was basically a listening session, no one-on-one with citizens,” argued Michael Vasilko, a longtime resident, in an email he sent out after the forum, asking Council members for more time. “A few citizens will have the opportunity and benefit (hopefully) of a few minutes directly with the three candidates tomorrow.  

“Immediately afterwards, the matter goes back to the Council and a decision is reached in a matter of days,” he said.

At the forum, selecting from questions submitted by community members, Heidi Vorhees, of GovHR, the City’s consultant on the search, asked the candidates their top three priorities if named Evanston’s next City Manager.

Speaking first, Ms. Ferrell-Benavides noted “There are a lot of challenges, but one of the major challenges that we are all facing right now is, ‘What is the future with COVID-19?’

“Many of the norms that have become common to us going to an office have changed,” she said. “And so now we've got to look long term: What do our long-term operations look like?” 

She said fiscal review is another priority.

“Sometimes when we look at our operational changes we make changes that are based on a short-term fix, (but) what is the long term?

“And finally, part of that transition is really getting to know Evanston, and the people,” she said. “This is a very engaged community. This means that I've got to be on the ground and starting to talk to the community and talking to the community members, getting to know the staff, getting to know the Council and working to make sure that I understand what the true challenges are.”

Ms. Storlie said one of her priorities would be to make sure the recovery from the pandemic was equitable.

“COVID has exposed inequities that we knew existed for a long time,” she said. 

Even if things were to return to what “life was like before this pandemic, that doesn't change those inequities that existed before,” she argued. “So we need to completely change how we're looking at our future, in light of trying to eliminate those inequities.”

Another of her priorities concerns the City’s financial recovery, Ms. Storlie said.

“The City is very challenged financially. We have had some stress on our budget for years, but we have also an incredible community that has resilience, and we have a lot of attributes that make us a very attractive place to work and to live and to do business. Our business community is really struggling right now, and the economic recovery for our business community is going to be a paramount priority for all of us. We’re going to need to do what we can to help our small businesses survive and thrive, because our small businesses are the fabric of our community and what makes us unique and special,” she said.

Ms. Storlie said her third priority has to do with the City’s Climate Action Plan.

“The Climate Action Plan was created in 2018. We have some very aggressive goals that need to be met,” she said. “And in order to achieve those goals, ahead of schedule, which is my goal, but we're going to have to make some very, very bold policies that not everybody will like, but are necessary in order for us to combat the climate crisis.”

Dr. Peoples named meeting with staff and stakeholders, and the budget among her top priorities.

“And not in any particular order,” she added. “As a manager you have to be able to do several things at the same time, and all of those things are certainly priorities. And who knows where we will be in terms of COVID in the pandemic?”

For that reason, she said, she would hope to be able to start immediately building relationships and to hear from the perspectives of those stakeholders, including employees who know the community – business stakeholders as well, their perspectives on challenges, perhaps opportunities.”

She noted, “We’re certainly entering a new time with COVID. And while hopefully vaccinations and other things will happen, we’re still going to be living with a new normal for quite some time. So what does that mean? How does business change and how does government pivot, and I would be there to help put those pieces together.”

At the start of the forum, the candidates were asked to speak about their background.

Dr. Marie Peoples: Proud of Covid incident commander role

Dr. Peoples spoke of her job as Deputy County Manager for Coconino County, a position she has held for two years.

“I’m also currently serving as the incident commander for the county's COVID response and I've done that since the beginning of COVID,” she said. “I'm incredibly proud of having been entrusted with that – my community has been very forward leaning in the pandemic response – the first in our state to establish drive-through testing free of charge operating seven days a week – and to establish housing for unsheltered populations impacted by COVID and operate a call center. 

“And again, I've been charged with doing this since the beginning of March and I think that speaks to my credibility and my ability to make decisive decisions and times of need,” she said.

She began her career in corrections and worked in several Missouri prisons, she said.

“I've also held several leadership positions within local and state governments and local government.

“Local government is my calling,” she said. “It is where I have found my home and so I'm really looking forward to continuing that service.”

Coconino County ranks as the second largest county, geographically, in the nation, comprised of more than 18,000 square miles of both rural and urban land, she said. 

Dr. Peoples lives in Flagstaff, the County seat, “and, like Evanston, my community is comprised of people of all different races, religions backgrounds and differences of opinions and it's just a melting pot,” she said.

Also, like Evanston, she said, “my community is home to a very large university, which comes with many pros and cons and community navigation as we work through that together as a community.

“As great as my community is, we also grapple with difficulties, such as poverty, social justice issues, economic developments and affordable housing,” she said.

“I believe my experiences with those challenges are relevant to Evanston needs, and as a leader,” she said. “I am inclusive, visionary and innovative and I have a proven track record of working collaboratively with all partners and stakeholders.”

For Aretha Ferrell-Benevides, the next to speak, local government was a special calling. When asked why she went to work in local government, she said, “I have to say, as many say, this my calling.”

She is originally from Fort Worth, Tex., “where my mother represented the true meaning of local government public servant,” working for the City Manager’s office there for more than 28 years. 

 “She was a beacon of hope for me – she became the voice for many of those who did not have a voice,” she said. “She taught me that the job of a true public servant is to not only stand up but to speak up and to ensure that all voices can be heard and represented as well.”

Ms. Ferrell-Benavides, who holds a master’s degree in public administration and international development from Howard University, has attended a number of executive training programs, including at Howard Washington College.

“So my career path, what brings me to you today,” she said at the forum, “is that I've been filled with challenges of building my toolbox.”

Evanston would mark “a coming home,” for her, she said. More than 20 years ago, “I moved to the city of Chicago. I began my career with the City of Chicago and the IT department as an Assistant Chief Information Officer, and then I continued to work with the Chicago Housing Authority as the Deputy Chief of Staff. My son, who is now a sophomore at the University of Kansas, was born at Northwestern Hospital. So, it is a coming home,” she said.

She took the job in Petersburg, a city of about 32,000, three years ago with “a purpose, and that purpose was to make a difference and prove that government does work.  I partnered with a group of determined individuals and set out to fix what many thought could not be fixed, both fiscal and operational reform, and to reinvigorate the economy. It's been a great challenge,” she said.

Ms. Storlie reflected on her small town beginnings. “My parents divorced when I was young, and we had little money. We didn't have a lot in terms of possessions or opportunities. We didn't even have a stoplight. But what we did have was an extended family that loved us and an attitude that we were in control of our own future. We treated others how we wanted to be treated. And we didn't judge someone else until we had walked a mile in their shoes.

“We had good public schools, and I often thank my English teachers for my writing skills. The other thing we had that was life-changing for me was a public library in a town of, not much. The library was my haven. I loved roaming the shelves and reading about everything in the world that I couldn't experience in my hometown, because the Internet had not yet arrived.

“This was my first taste of local government in action, and it cultivated in me a great appreciation for what life-changing public services are provided to communities every day. I wasn't quite sure then what I wanted to be when I grew up, but when I started working for the City of Evanston, I knew I was home.

“It is my great joy and passion to be able to serve this community, every day,” she said. “I earned my bachelor's degree at age 30, and my master's at age 40, with four small kids at home, all while working full time. I can tell you from experience that requires an incredible amount of perseverance.

“After that, I helped my mom get her bachelor's degree at an age I won't reveal. I value education and hard work. I value personal relationships and working together to achieve common goals. I take a calm approach to everything, and I do not get rattled by much. Even a worldwide pandemic. This approach keeps everyone focused on the mission and able to do their best work.

“I'm comfortable being uncomfortable. 

“Why do I want to be Evanston’s next City Manager? I have an unconditional love for Evanston, and the collective impact that we can make when we focus on a common goal. Since the day I started working here, we have always been raising the bar. We are not perfect, far from it. But we pursue improving our city with a relentlessness and a tenacity that is unparalleled.”

In the  one-and-a half-hour debate, the candidates discussed a number of other issues, including racial equity, competing budget priorities, communications with residents.

The entire forum can be viewed on the City’s YouTube channel at  https://youtu.be/OieMknIHbLA