7th Ward candidates: Grover, Zbesko, O'Connor

The three candidates for alderman in Evanston’s 7th Ward offer varying prescriptions for the city’s financial crisis.

At a meeting of the Central Street Neighbors Association last week, John Zbesko suggested shifting the cost of the city’s sewer improvement project to future generations. Kevin O’Connor called for ending what he called “developer welfare.” And Jane Grover said the city should look for partnerships with schools, businesses and non-profit groups to help meet its needs.

Zbesko said he’s lived at 1120 Noyes St. for over 20 years, while working as a quantitative stock analyst.

He said it should have been no surprise to city officials that after they jacked up water rates to pay for storm sewer improvements, water usage in the city declined.

That decline recently led city staff and consultants to recommend further rate increases over the next few years, followed by some declines as bonds to pay for the sewer project, which has largely eliminated basement flooding in the city during storms, are paid off.

He suggested refinancing the bonds “to better match the long life of the new sewers.”

“There’s no reason future Evanston residents shouldn’t help pay for the future value of the new storm drains,” Zbesko said.

Zbesko didn’t address how he would finance what mayoral candidate and current 7th Ward alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl has estimated are $60 million to $80 million in needed repairs to the city’s water works.

O’Connor, a salesman and property manager who lives at 1227-1/2 Isabella St., said the city has been “privatizing profit and socializing risk and loss.”

He criticized City Council decisions to grant developers extensions of time to complete building projects during an economic downturn. But he failed to explain how killing off approved projects might benefit the city.

He also objected to a council decision to provide a partial rebate of anticipated increased sales tax revenue to finance the refitting of the long-shuttered Frank’s Nursery store for a planned Steve & Barry’s discount clothing store at the Dempster-Dodge shopping center.

“It’s beyond me why we’re giving money to these people when we don’t have the money ourselves,” O’Connor said.

The new store plan has fallen apart in the midst of financial troubles for the Steve & Barry’s chain, and as a result, under terms of the deal with the city, the developer now will receive none of the promised benefits.

Grover, assistant director of the Leadership Evanston program at the Evanston Community Foundation, said city government needs to “look outside its own silo for ways to get things done and preserve the quality of life in Evanston.”

Grover, of 2703 Prairie Ave., said she’d “like to change the tone of discourse in Evanston. I don’t think polarization is effective. I don’t think polarization is going to balance the budget.”

An Evanston resident for 15 years who has a master’s degree in foreign service, Grover said, “Just as in international affairs, those of us in the municipal policy world have a large toolbox of things we can use to persuade and influence decisions — it’s not always just carrots or sticks.”

She said she favored discussions with a variety of potential partners, but she offered no specifics about the goals she hoped to achieve from such talks.

“We also have to realize that every decision is a budget decision. If a policy decision triggers a lawsuit, that has repercussions for the budget and the tax base. A policy decision that forces out small businesses or leaves city blocks empty has repercussions for the budget,” Grover added.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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16 Comments

  1. Transcript of my comments at CSNA meeting
    Friends and Neighbors,

    My name is John Zbesko and my family has lived at 1120 Noyes St. for over 20 years. Today, I am a candidate for 7th Ward Alderman.

    Ever since 1986, I have involved myself in the Evanston community. I worked to redistrict my neighborhood into the 7th Ward after the 1990 census and keep it there after the 2000 census. More recently, I worked to save the elm trees and to save the Civic Center as the seat of Evanston government. I have served as coach and member of the AYSO soccer Board of Directors and I am a former President of the Democratic Party of Evanston. My family was a founding family of a Sunday school for interfaith couples- Jewish and Catholic. Currently, I am a Trustee of the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District and I am making sure the small portion of your property tax bill that goes to mosquito and West Nile virus control is well spent.

    My profession is quantitative stock analyst. Simply, I perform lots of number crunching to determine stocks to buy and sell. I have an undergraduate degree in Business Management from M.I.T. and a Masters degree in Economics from the University of Chicago. I also hold a CFA, Chartered Financial Analyst designation.

    At this point in my family’s life and in my professional career, I have decided to escalate my commitment to you and to Evanston by running for Alderman. Over the past few months, I have been preparing for the role of alderman. I’ve attended budget workshops and Council meetings, engaged with neighbors and neighborhood groups, and participated in a program called Leadership Evanston that teaches civic leadership skills and how municipal and school district government works in Evanston.

    Our City is poised for substantial change. The City’s staff has been hollowed out by an early retirement plan and a number of new faces will appear on the City Council next spring. We face substantial fiscal problems that were a long time in the making and the current economic environment presents further challenges. I intend to bring my career experience in finance and economics, as well as a keen interest in technology, to bear on the many challenges and issues that face our community. Recently, the City’s Finance Director projected a shortfall in water and sewage fee revenue due to declining water usage. It really should come as no surprise that usage declined when the rates were jacked up to pay for our new storm sewer system. The alternatives proposed all included further rate hikes, followed by declines in rates as the bonds used to finance the construction were paid off. My suggestion is to refinance the bonds to better match the long life -decades- that the sewer system will last. I feel there is no reason why the future residents of Evanston shouldn’t help pay for the future value of the new storm drains.

    My concept of effective aldermanic representation is three-fold. First, maintain and enhance City services. Make sure the snow is plowed, the streets repaired and safe, and the parks, libraries and other facilities cared for. City functions that benefit all residents will be my greatest budget priority. The second concept is to represent you, the residents of the 7th Ward and the City as a whole. Evanston is unique in its level of civic involvement- the wonderful ability of its citizens to organize and push for some cause. I want to channel this civic energy. For example, the Save the Civic Center Committee proposed to the Council a charette, a group of retired architects, developers, and engineers who volunteered to work with City staff to produce a plan for rehabbing the Civic Center. Not much happened to this proposal and instead the current Council retained an outside consultant. As Alderman, I would embrace this type of citizen involvement.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, an effective Alderman must have vision, values and goals. I want Evanston to become a better place to live, work and play. Too much emphasis has been put on Evanston as a place to live. Not enough attention has been paid to making Evanston a place to work. Today, the proposed plan for the West Side Corridor seems to favor residential as opposed to commercial development. Businesses, both small and large, need to be courted and encouraged.

    As a parent, I have traveled to other towns’ fields, rinks and facilities. Evanston’s recreation assets cry out for improvement. Personally, I like to garden and I am dismayed that the City outsourced yard waste disposal and eliminated the free compost for residents. Now our leaves and grass clippings are trucked to Wisconsin.

    As my children grow into adulthood, I wish to bequeath them an Evanston such as the one I moved into as a young married man. I hope to leave them a city in which they can afford to live and would want to raise a family.

    Thank you for your interest and support.

    1. Dismayed?
      John: You indicated that “Personally, I like to garden and I am dismayed that the City outsourced yard waste disposal and eliminated the free compost for residents. Now our leaves and grass clippings are trucked to Wisconsin.”

      You may not have followed the issue several years ago when it raised a bit of a stink. Members of the 8th and 9th Wards, as well as teachers and families with kids at Dawes School had substantial complaints about the stench that was often associated with the City composting efforts in James Park.

      The City made the change after trying several alternatives in managing the compost pile. A regional organization with significant expertise also came in and offered TA about how to resolve the issue. City staff worked hard at trying to resolve the problem and tamp down the odor . . . with no success.

      At the time that all of this transpired, there was no other area/ward in town that seemed moved to offer up its own space for a local composting effort. And the City adiministration made it very clear that it was not going to move to anywhere on the North side.

      1. Stench?
        I confess when this compost issue first came up, I heard very little mention of any stench. The only gossip about smell I remember concerned the impact on the new shopping development just west of James Park. The outsourcing of the yard waste collection was sold as a money-saving idea.

        Smelly compost is a valid concern. My own family sometimes complains about my own compost pile in the Fall when I first “load it up.” I am not aware of the different techniques tried to dampen the smell. It may be that “Tree City, USA” generates too much Fall yard waste to be composted all in one location without any odor.

        Even though I’m running for 7th ward alderman, I don’t believe in pushing an issue for the benefit of one ward over another. It is my hope that a greener solution to our yard waste can be worked out rather than shipping it to another state.

        1. Compost
          I live less than 3 blocks from the old compost site and I and none of my neighbors ever complained about the smell. More likely it is just another big idea to grab land where the council or planning and development can plan to shoehorn another low-end store we don’t want on our side of town.

  2. City Budget Drives 7th Ward Race
    To Bill Smith and all readers of this Evanston Now story:

    What Mr. Smith should have prefaced his story with was that the Central Street Neighbors Association allowed 3-5 minutes for each speaker (6th & 7th wards and mayoral). Unfortunately, I tried to hit a number of topics in the short time alloted, so details were not complete. As Jeff Smith, the president of the CSNA stated: these were just brief introductions of potential candidates and no Q & A or debate was allowed. I shall be updating this ( like John Zbesko did above later today ).

    Thanks,

    Kevin O’Connor

    Candidate for 7th Ward Alderman
    City of Evanston

  3. John’s Blank Check
    John – It is becoming very clear why you’re looking to change professions. With your take on how Evanston finances itself it’s no wonder you’re not making it as a stock analyst. As you indicate the city is in a financial crisis and all you want to do is SPEND MORE MONEY. You want to SPEND MILLIONS on the storm sewer system and then hope future generations can pick up the tab. What is to say Evanston’s economic situation ever improves. You’re assuming this gets fixed, but if it doesn’t then you’re placing an even bigger burden on the city down the road. I hope you enjoy your social security while the younger generations get screwed on that one too. You also want to “maintain and enhance city services” which cannot be done unless you continue to SPEND MONEY. Where are you getting this money John? I can only assume you plan to increase taxes or cut funds from somewhere else. Which is it? You don’t have a blank check…

  4. Elisabeth Tisdahl for Mayor
    I can’t think of anyone I would rather have as Mayor than Elisabeth Tisdahl. Honest, well-informed and hardworking she has brought a level of executive organization and confidence to the 7th Ward that has been consistently excellent.

    Partnerships with our largest employers: NU and the hospitals are on her agenda. I know that under her stewardship as Alderperson, and continuing as Mayor, Evanston will enter a higher level of cooperation with business interests leading to benefits for the community as a whole.

    I hope the candidates running to fill her position can bring to our 7th Ward the same capable level of information and competency we have enjoyed with Elisabeth Tisdahl at the helm.

    1. Lindwall for Mayor
      With the projected turnover in the City Council I think that Ms. Tisdahl would be of greater service remaining on the City Council.

      Given the sad state of our city finances and drawn out planning process, with no end of “consultants”, Jean Lindwall would be a better choice for Mayor given her experience and background. She has worked for the city, has extensive professional urban planning experience, and is quite knowledgeable about city finances, especially TIFs.

      She would be a great asset, providing experience we sadly lack after a drastic staff turnover, especially in setting priorities, reducing the need for and screening the constant stream of planning and financial consultants that have brought us to our sad state.

      1. Some clarification please
        Vito — You wrote about Ms. Lindwall — “She would be a great asset, providing experience we sadly lack after a drastic staff turnover, especially in setting priorities, reducing the need for and screening the constant stream of planning and financial consultants that have brought us to our sad state.”

        Can you explain to me what that has to do with the job of Mayor in Evanston? I could be mistaken, but it sounds as if you are envisioning a staff-related role for the Mayor. Are you thinking that the functional roles of a City Manager-form of government are going to be changing in the not-so-distant future?

        1. Clarification
          Even though the Mayoral role is seen as primarily honorific with commission appointments and tie vote resolution as major powers, the situation we face is extraordinary.

          The City is in dire financial straits and the prior City Managers and Councils have been unable to deal with that. Or they have been oblivious.

          There is a big hole in institutional experience with the large group of staff retirees. The Council is about to have new members. There will probably be a new City Manager, a situation that will require time to be brought up to speed.

          The process to develop a new downtown plan has taken quite a bit of time and is still up in the air. At the same time we are facing a financial crisis that has impacted the development market. Ms Lindwall has the financial and planning experience that can assist the staff and Council in setting directions.

          In plain terms we need someone who has skill sets in the financial and city planning areas. Consultants, from past experience, have only made the situation worse. Ms. Lindwall has the experience and skills.

  5. Vito never answers the question
    Vito, you did not answer the question as to how Lindwall as mayor could do all the things you claim (reducing the need for financial and planning consultants or assisting city staff in financial planning).

    The fact is, she can’t as mayor.

    You seem to suggest that the Council should stop hiring financial and planning consultants and instead rely on Lindwall as mayor for those duties. I sure hope Lindwall isn’t campaigning on that naive platform.

    ALL municipalities hire independent and objective PROFESSIONAL consulting firms to study, analyze and assess particular needs to help city leaders make fiscally responsible and wise decisions.

    To suggest a mayor take on those duties invites disastrous decisions, corruption, cronyism and dictatorship (see Mayor Daley, Meigs Field and Soldier Field).

    1. You have it wrong
      You decry a mayoral form of government, well we have a city manager form of government and where are we?

      $146 million in the hole, and climbing, despite being sued and having known about it for over a decade. And our taxes are going through the roof (nor does it help that the Civic Center roof and other facilities have been neglected for years, when they should have recognized that there was no money for a new Civic Center).

      I did not say or imply that Ms. Lindwall would solve all those problems. What I said was that she would bring planning and financial skills to the office. Given our increasing tax burden and financial obligations, neither the City Manager, Council, or staff have done a great job.

      It is obvious that when we hire consultants who give a financial presentation to the Council without using NPV (where was our PV expert Mr. Who Knows What?) and no one questions them, that something is amiss. It should be obvious that consultants we have hired have not helped the city make fiscally responsible and wise decisions.

      Nor is it encouraging to have the Council refer to a “pipeline” which does not legally exist, even when legal staff tell them that it does not exist.

      I implied that given her experience and skills, she could help the Council screen consultants and hopefully achieve better results. Hopefully she could help set priorities. Being a nuclear free city does nothing for the police and fire pension funds.

      1. Skills vs Popularity
        Vito, if you’re implying that we will have better government in a small municipality based on voter’s choice, I have to emphatically disagree. Although we’ve certainly had issues with City Managers, at least they’re chosen based on their resumes and not on how many votes (or how much PR) they can generate. Its important that the person running the City have the skills to do so – being voted to office is an important, but completely different set of skills.

        I believe that one reason we have so much difficulty with our City Managers is not because it’s a bad form of government, but because every managerial decision is questioned by both the council and the constituency on all possible fronts. This City needs a desk where the buck stops, and the Mayor’s desk isn’t it.

        Find out more about Brummel Park Neighbors and Michele Hays

        1. Reply to Michelle
          Michelle,

          I am in no way implying that we eliminate the City Manager’s position. The Mayor is basically a somewhat honorific position, but does not mean that a person with skills in finance and city planning in that position would not be an asset.

          We have a temporary City Manager now, and there well may be a new person after a search, which will take months. Even if selected by then, if that person is new to Evanston, there will be a transition period before they are up to speed. I do not mean to demean Tisdahl, but I think Lindwall has better skill sets for what lies ahead.

          The estimate for the pension funds is now $146 million, and that does not yet account for the market turmoil. The ultimate pay-in through 2033 is probably over $500 million. No matter how you dice it, that is a lot of money. Where is that going to come from?

          Lindwall could be of immense help in assisting the Council in selecting a new City Manager, consultants, especially financial and planning. In my opinion, the past choices have not been great. That the police and fire pension funds disaster went on for such a long period of time does not speak well for a lot of people. I know several firemen (and you do too), ask them.

          The crowning blow came during an earlier hearing on the pension fund problem where the financial consultants came up with several proposals. The police fund actuary, sitting behind me, got up and told the consultants that their proposal was not valid because state law prohibited those investment vehicles. Duh?

          Need I say more?

  6. Mayor as a Manager or PR person?
    The mayor’s position does not carry a great deal of power but can break tie votes. It has some role for appointments.

    Also the current council has been abusing executive sessions – so who knows what the mayor role might be.

    The position in many ways is PR – that is alot of speeches – which the current Mayor does very well. It does not appear to me anyone running has the current Mayor’s ability to represent the city in the PR function.

    Vito point is correct – if you have a mayor with some technical knowledge it brings something to the table to help shape decesions. Lindwall clearly is quite qualified- at the Central Street Neighbors meeting she brought up the point the city should seek money for bridges (transportation improvements) – that is work with the CTA and others to get the possible funding.

    Some here are making statements like you need to hire consultants to help you make decisions – maybe- but most of the time you need public officials who know how to ask the right questions which we are lacking here. That is you need to have consultants answer the guestions not create the public policy.

    By the way staff has been setting many of the agendas here – since the council in many cases does not have a clue what is going on. A recent example – one council member at APW stated they did not have a clue how the water department worked ( yet they will be happy to raise your water bills 33% )- yet they are sitting here voting on capital projects. Another stated since we already spent the money part way – let spend the rest.

    Actually Bill should start to put some of these council members on here as video clips – it would be better than Saturday night live!

  7. Elisabeth Tisdahl for Mayor
    Currently the office of Mayor is a figurehead position. Alderpeople run the City Council. With Elisabeth Tisdahl for Mayor that changes for the better. With her election the mayoral office becomes an activist position again.

    Ald. Tisdahl, a businesswoman, already has ties to Evanston Hospital and positive associations with Northwestern as well as numerous other affiliations with other businesses. We residents see rising taxes and we cannot shoulder the burden of our fiscal obligations alone.

    We need Ald. Tisdahl as Mayor, using her well-earned experience, to encourage our major businesses to contribute more money to the City of Evanston for the services they receive. In the past this has been done in a confrontational way – suing NU for example – and we not only lost the case we lost ground in building positive relationships.

    Ald. Tisdahl not only has the skills, knowledge and understanding of how to run a municipal government, she gets things done asap. Here we are in 2009 and we need proven doers, not talkers, to represent our citizen interests as Mayor.

    Someone who listens, understands then acts to our benefit. Someone who will be influential in hiring a City Manager who gets things done. Ald. Tisdahl is a strategic planner who can plan economic development as well as an enhanced income stream for the City of Evanston thereby lessening taxpayer burdens.

    No one even comes close to her qualifications for the job.

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