Some City Council candidates think Evanston should swap its council-manager form of government for a strong-mayor system.
At a candidate forum earlier this month several challengers and one incumbent alderman expressed varying levels of enthusiasm for the idea, while two incumbent aldermen said they strongly favor maintaining the existing system.
Evanston switched to the council-manager form of government nearly 70 years ago, and that system had gained popularity in Illinois and elsewhere across the country in recent decades.
Checking a list provided by Illinois City/County Managers Association and adding other north-suburban towns that Wikipedia indicates have the council-manager system, it appears that the vast majority of communities near Evanston now operate as council-manager governments.
At the forum hosted by the NAACP and other groups, Mary Rosinski, who’s running for 7th Ward alderman, said she’d like to see the city have a professional full-time mayor. “Since the city manager is not elected, there’s not a lot of accountability,” Rosinski claimed, although she said the mayor might hire a full-time professional manager to help out.
That approach is somewhat similar to what’s done in Issaquah, Washington, where former Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz took a position as city administrator, reporting to the mayor, after leaving Evanston.
But Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said she favors the current council-manager form of government. “It’s a way to have professional staff manage the daily business in the community, while the City Council sets policies and makes sure they’re implemented.”
Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, said he’d be inclined to support a change to a mayor-council system. “A full-time elected mayor makes sense,” he said, adding that he’d also like to consider having some aldermen elected at large, instead of the current system in which all aldermen represent individual wards.
Bobby Burns, who’s running for 5th Ward alderman, said he’s open to either approach, but he cautioned that the strong mayor structure has led to problems in communities like Calumet City in that election races get more expensive, with law firms seeking city business spending large amounts on elections in hopes they’ll win city business if the mayoral candidate they back wins.
“We’d need to pass some kind of campaign finance reform” along with it, Burns said.
5th Ward candidate Carolyn Murray said having a strong mayor “would give some light as to some of the decisions that have been arbitrarily made by the manager that I’m not supportive of.”
4th Ward candidate Diane Goldring said the city would have to pay the mayor and aldermen more under a strong mayor system, but that would mean more people could afford to run if the job actually had a salary.
But 4th Ward candidate Jonathan Nieuwsma said he’s concerned that this may be a case where the grass always seems greener someplace else. “Maybe the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t.”
Nick Korzeniowski, running for 3rd Ward alderman, said, “Sure, let’s explore it. There’s no reason not to.” But he said his major concern is the Council decision to require a super-majority vote to fire the current city manager.
Candidate Darlene Cannon, running for 2nd Ward alderman, said she’d agree to explore a different form of government with the mayor in leadership “and paying him a decent salary.”
“Right now it feels like the Council is not fully aware of the decisions being made,” Cannon added.
Incumbent 2nd Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite said having a strong mayor system would lead to even more spending on municipal elections than there is now.
The city’s last black mayor, Lorraine Morton, he said, would have had difficulty raising the resources it takes to be elected mayor today, and switching to a strong mayor system would marginalize people of color from running for the office.
The change, he suggested, “Would definitely be handing over power to a different segment of town without any guarantees that we would be heard.”
But Clare Kelly, who’s hoping to become 1st Ward alderman, said turning the positions of mayor and aldermen into full time jobs would make it possible for a lot more people to be able to run.
Kelly asked why the city is paying the manager more than the Mayor of Chicago makes.
There’s no guarantee a full time mayor would necessarily be paid less than a city manager. The Better Government Association’s Illinois Public Salaries Database indicates that Bradley Stephens Sr., the full-time mayor of Rosemont, population just over 4,000, made $260,252 in 2018. That year Evanston’s city manager, Wally Bobkiewicz, made $233,781.
In recent days the question of the city’s form of government has become a hot issue in the campaign, with the newly formed political action committee Evanston Together LLC sending out a four-page mailing piece supporting votes for candidates who favor the current council-manager system.
The flyer claims that if there’s a change, “our professionally managed government could become a political free-for-all.”
Evanston’s current mayor, Steve Hagerty, opposes a change. Hagerty says, “Our Council-Manager form of government has served us well for almost 70 years. It’s one reason Evanston is consistently held up as one of the best urban ring cities in America. The idea that there are candidates running for office, including an incumbent alderman, who would abandon this form of government is reckless and ill-informed.”