In a development likely to make it even more difficult to find a new Evanston city manager, only four council members Monday night defended retaining the city’s council-manager government structure.
In a discussion led by Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd) of the forms of municipal government permitted under state law, Braithwaite was joined only by Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th), Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) and Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd) in strongly favoring holding onto the council-manager system.
Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings, in a presentation to the Rules Committee, identified the four options permitted under state law as:
- Council-Mayor. The default form, it gives the mayor power to appoint, subject to Council approval, all municipal officers not required to be elected. The council can abolish certain appointed offices and retains legislative authority, including to determine the powers of the mayor.
- Commission. Has a council consisting of the mayor and four commissioners that retains all executive, administrative and legislative authority. Typically the council appoints superintendents of five departments and a commissioner assigned to each department hires and fires all other employees of that department, except for police and fire personnel who have special civil service protection.
- Council-Manager. Evanston’s form. It gives the council legislative authority. The city manager is the administrative head of government and has authority to appoint the heads of any department created by the council and all municipal officers not required to be elected, while the mayor appoints community volunteers to boards and commissions.
- Strong Mayor. In this form, the mayor assumes what would be the city manager’s role in the council-manager form — including authority to appoint and discharge department heads, to appoint administrative assistants with the qualifications of a city manager to aid in the operation of the city as well as a budget and finance director and a board of fire and police commissioners.
Wynne said she’s “a very strong supporter of the form of government we currently have.”
She said the council-manager form was adopted “more than 70 years ago at the behest of the League of Women Voters” and that “for cities our size it makes very good sense to have a professional manager.”
“We do have a large budget, but a relatively small population from which to draw someone to run as mayor,” she added.
She said several communities in the area that have the strong mayor system “are not in my opinion well-run communities and are rife with corruption” because everyone in the government answers to a single person, the mayor.
Nieuwsma said changing the structure of government “would create a cloud of uncertainty, confusion and chaos for an indefinite period of time and detract from the real work we have to do on any number of issues.”
“The community is best served,” he added, “by having professionals qualified in their field of work fill key staff positions and not political appointees.”
And, he said, with a strong mayor form there’d be less community engagement, only one person running the city and diminished authority of council members.
Braithwaite said adopting a strong mayor system would “set us up for failure” and lead to an environment where “the person with the most money and influence wins” and that person would be “beholden to whoever the investors are” in getting him or her elected.
But Ald. Devon Reid (8th) said that if the influence of money in politics was the issue, then that should be addressed, presumably through public financing.
Reid suggested that switching to the council-mayor form of government could give the council more power than it has now.
Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) said she doesn’t have “a strong feeling one way or the other” about the form of government.
Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) asked whether if the city switched to a strong mayor government it could still have ranked-choice voting.
Cummings replied that state law requires holding a primary election for mayor under the strong mayor form — which would defeat the ranked-choice goal of eliminating the need for primaries.
Ald. Tom Suffredin (6th), Ald. Juan Geracaris (9th) and Mayor Daniel Biss didn’t comment during the discussion about the form of government.
Braithwaite said the city’s most recent choice for manager, who declined the job offer at the last minute, had raised concerns about the council’s commitment to maintaining the city manager’s role.
And it appears the issue of whether a new manager is likely to be a short-timer — ousted or demoted as a result of a plan to change the form of government — will be a concern for other candidates in the future.
On a related issue, the Rules Committee Monday voted 6-4 to reject a proposal from Reid to reduce the number of council member votes needed to hire or fire a city manager from seven to six.