A number of grassroots broad-based Evanston organizations are calling on the City Council to hold off on naming a new City Manager, charging the “fast track closed-door” decision process the Council members used failed to respect the transparent search they promised.

At a press conference held over Zoom Oct. 12, members of the Community Alliance for Better Government demanded that the City Council refrain from making an announcement of a new City Manager, which was expected to come tomorrow, Tuesday, Oct. 13.

Instead, the Council should “prioritize public input based on the criteria and qualities for City Manager” before making an announcement, the group said.

In addition, each alderman must be asked to account publicly for his or her decision, the group said. 

The group statement came after aldermen met in a six-hour executive session Oct. 8, directing GovHR, their consultant on the search, at the end of the meeting to start contract negotiations with one of the candidates.

The Evanston groups learned about the Council’s direction in an email blast from Ninth Ward Cicely Fleming the following day. Ald. Fleming sent the message from her personal email address, not from her City email address.

“Alderman Fleming does not state who was selected, but she provides enough information to know for a fact that the public process that we were promised by the Council was discarded,” the groups noted, summoning a response.

The organizations represented included Community Alliance for Better Government, the Evanston Minority Business Consortium, Evanston Voter Initiative, ESPCAR (Every Single Person Committed to Anti-Racism), Reclaim Evanston and others.

According to Ald. Fleming’s email, per State law, an employment contract must be listed on the City’s web site six days prior to being voted on. She told constituents that the City is aiming for the contract announcement to be posted on Oct. 13.

She said Council members are expected to vote on the contract at their Oct. 19 meeting.

Council members arrived at the decision after the City hosted a Candidate Forum, for the finalists — Erika Storlie, Evanston’s Interim City Manager; Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, City Manager in Petersburg, Va.; and Dr. Marie Peoples, Deputy County Manager in Coconino County, Ariz.

The closed door meeting came “barely 18 hours after this forum,” noted Gail Schechter, a member of the Community Alliance for Better Government, speaking at the press conference. “Aldermen didn't even use the process to create the job description [for the position] which is to go back to the constituents and say, ‘You know, you watched this meeting or, you know, did you have a chance to see this on video – even giving people a weekend to take a look at it.”

In its press release for the event, the Community Alliance for Better Government maintained that “during the public forum and citizen panels, the two outside candidates demonstrated a broad mastery of the expertise and vision needed to balance budgets, implement racial equity, and lead during a crisis such as COVID.  If the chosen candidate is Ms. Storlie, who was clearly less qualified than the other two finalists, then the entire search was a sham. We are outraged at this betrayal.”

Kevin Brown Firing a Factor

Bennett Johnson, founder of the Evanston Minority Business Consortium, said one of the group’s primary concerns is that “the  community was left out of the process.

“They [the Council] committed to have the community. And the whole thing was done in a rather controlled manner and didn't reflect the tradition of openness and transparency that any democracy should have, and certainly the City of Evanston should have.”

Also, he suggested that some of the strong feelings about the process were rooted in Ms. Storlie’s firing of Kevin Brown last fall. Mr. Brown, the popular director of the City’s outreach program for at-risk youth, was fired for paying some parking tickets accumulated by his staff and other City employees. Mr. Brown said he had cleared the payment with his superiors.

Mr. Johnson said the way the matter was handled was “clearly discriminatory, and anything but equitable as far as race was concerned,” and a reason, he thought, why so much attention was focused on the search for the next City Manager.

Some of the same speakers taking part in the press conference were critical of the fact that, back in June, Mayor Stephen Hagerty, with support from some aldermen, proposed the City elevate Ms. Storlie to the full time position, a move which would have shelved the public process.

The Mayor cited Ms. Storlie’s performance on the budget and her response to the pandemic. He also questioned the quality of a City Manager candidate who would leave a job in the time of a crisis.

In the face of strong public outcry, Council members agreed to restart the search.

Community members eagerly participated in public sessions with GovHR, suggesting the attributes they would like to see in the City’s next top executive.

GovHR’s search generated 70 applicant with Ms. Storlie, Ms. Ferrell-Benavides and Dr. Peoples, the latter two Black women, emerging as the finalists.

Karla Thomas, a member of the City’s Equity and Empowerment Commission, noted the Council decision on a candidate was taken hours before the actual video of the public forum was shown.

“There was really no way for citizens of this community, to be able to watch that,” she said. “This leaves a very bad taste in the mouth of citizens. It makes us feel that not only was the final agreement to go out and do a full search a dog-and-pony show, but now we've wasted government money and our tax dollars on this event.”