Aldermen raised a variety of objections Monday to the city manager’s plan to reduce the number of government boards in Evanston.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz pledged to seek feedback from members of the boards that would be affected and bring his change proposal back to the City Council’s Rules Committee in February.

The reorganization plan, developed by Community Development Director Johanna Leonard, would combine 17 boards, committees and commissions into eight new ones.

The new panels would gain a broader mandate to address a variety of livability issues identified in the STAR Communities framework. Evanston has achieved a four-star rating from that organization and city officials are hoping to advance to the top-rated five-star category.

Evanston has long had far more than the typical number of city government advisory boards, and Bobkiewicz has suggested for years that the city could achieve some budgetary savings by trimming that number.

A 2016 comparison of board counts by town. Evanston has since reduced its count to 45.

“We need more connectedness between the various parts of city government,” Bobkiewicz said, “and I see a vibrant board and commission system as key to that.”

He and Leonard said there’s a lot of duplication among the panels now.

“Many of these boards and commissions vary widely in the agenda and mandate they have,” Bobkiewicz added. “I want to have people volunteer to be substantively involved in good works that benefit the community.”

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said he thought the reorganization “makes some sense.”

But he said the proposed merger of the Plan Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals seemed dubious because of their heavy workloads.

He said he also saw a potential for conflict because the ZBA is often the determining body for cases involving rules that the Plan Commission has developed.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said he believed the newly formed Equity and Empowerment Commission should have more time to stay independent “before being absorbed with a whole host of other issues.”

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said she agreed with Braithwaite about the equity group. She also objected to combining the Mental Health Board, which evaluates funding requests from social service agencies, into the proposed Health and Safety Commission.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said she’d heard from one Mental Health Board member who was appalled at the idea of being merged with the 911 Emergency Telephone System board and the Animal Welfare Board.

Fleming questioned whether the STAR Communities framework “aligns with our purpose as a city.”

But Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said in looking at the framework she was surprised to see how many of its goals Evanston hasn’t been looking at. All of them, she suggested, are things the community should be addressing.

However, Revelle said, the scope of work proposed for some of the combined panels “is really huge” and may not be realistic.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said the city “needs to start thinking” of more consolidation. “Too often we do see the effects of siloing. Something is worked on in one committee, and also in another, and they’re not communicating with each other.”

Mayor Steve Hagerty praised the reorganization plan, saying, “We have an opportunity here to streamline and to reduce the amount of staff time and support required.”

But he said he shared concerns about combining the Plan Commission and ZBA.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, said consolidation makes sense, but she said she wanted to see better representation of all segments of the city on each of the city’s boards.

At Monday’s Rules Committee meeting the aldermen did vote to eliminate one group — the Taxicab Advisory Board — which staff said hasn’t met since 2015.

Related stories

City tries again to eliminate board bloat (10/1/18)

New plan to trim count of city boards (3/20/16)

Aldermen open to trimming committees (1/5/16)

Over-committee to committees? (1/4/16)

Aldermen find it hard to fire volunteers (4/7/10)

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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