Editorial: Evanston can’t be so rough on its city manager that no one wants the job

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Residents of Evanston are known for taking pride in the suburb’s level of civic engagement. In the progressive, utopian-minded city to Chicago’s north, opinions are as ubiquitous as objections. We’re all in favor of citizens participating in their own governance.

But Evanston, home to a diverse crowd of highly educated folks, appears in danger of being so difficult to run that nobody qualified even wants to try.

Chicagoans, of course, are familiar with the powerful job of mayor, an elected position but also the city’s chief executive. As is true of many suburbs, though, Evanston elects a mayor but the position is both ceremonial and policy-driven. The mayor, currently Daniel Biss, presides over the City Council, replete with cantankerous alderpeople. That’s the group that sets the city’s direction.

But when it comes actually to implementing the elected officials’ intentions, that falls to the city’s manager, an unelected staffer who handles the day-to-day issues of running local government while answering to a whole lot of bosses who are not all on the same page.

Evanston, where contention floats through the air, has been struggling mightily to hire a city manager, despite being a highly desirable place to live. The problem has become so acute, that it’s increasingly hard to actually get anything done there, even though tinkering with stuff is in the city’s DNA.

The search for a new manager has gone on for months now. In fact, there have been three searches in less than a year. In a recent letter he wrote to his neighbors, Biss called the effort “long and confusing with multiple rounds of finalists and the need to start over more than once (in fact, more than twice).” In classic Evanstonian fashion — Biss knows his voters — he then invited further discussion on the long and confusing process.

What has been going on? In 2021, a highly experienced and respected local employee, Erika Storlie, resigned her position (after less than a year in the top job) in the wake of a WBEZ story detailing allegations of sexual misconduct brought by city lifeguards and other workers on the city’s enviable collection of beaches. Whether Storlie, who was not directly accused of misconduct, needed to resign was a matter of some contention in Evanston, but a separation agreement was approved.

A long search ensued, buffeted by many stakeholders having their say. Even after all of that, the leading candidate, John Fournier from Ann Arbor, Michigan, then withdrew in disputed circumstances. The city said that Fournier had sought to reopen contract negotiations. Fournier said he just asked for his compensation to be restructured so that he and his wife could afford a down payment on a house in a costly real estate market.

There might have been more to it: A local activist group named the Community Alliance for Better Government had staged a protest in opposition to Fournier. Members of the group, and others, told The Daily Northwestern that they had learned Fournier had “a track record of racial discrimination in hiring practices.” That’s notwithstanding an Ann Arbor city government investigation that found no such violation of city law. The protesters (a group that included aldermanic candidates) said they preferred another leading candidate, Snapper Poche, program director for the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

Perhaps that was enough for Fournier, who already knew his predecessor had been pressured to resign. If you’re feeling remotely squishy about a job, realizing that people are protesting your appointment does not exactly help seal the deal.

Candidates withdraw from jobs every day, of course. But the public nature of all of the above is indicative of one of the problems Evanston and other suburbs have when it comes to attracting the crucial city managers needed to run the place. Everyone knows your business, including whether or not you are applying for the job, which may not sit too well with your current employer.

Universities now are more likely to make presidential searches more confidential; cities might also want to cut down on the number of people involved in the process. We’re longtime advocates for transparency in government, but, at some point, staff positions just have to be attractive enough to snag talent.

This week, Biss, who no doubt is feeling the big-time stress of the lack of a chief executive, described the situation as urgent: “A lot of balls are being dropped,” he said at a meeting, “because we don’t have enough people” to do all the work. No kidding.

All of this is made worse by the lack of a permanent police chief, too.

Biss also floated at the meeting that, in contrast with past practice, he was thinking of just presenting a single candidate to the community. At the same time, of course, he insisted that the community would have its “input.”

One candidate is a smart idea. At this point, Evanston needs to have someone in this job, pronto.

The suburb elects the mayor and its council sets policy. The elected mayor should be trusted to make his big hire with a bit of advice and consent. These days, somebody can find something to object to in almost everyone.

Especially in Evanston.

Join the discussion on Twitter @chitribopinions and on Facebook.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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July 18, 2022 at 08:27AM

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