Evanston and other cities inspire each other at conference

Ani Ajith

Two top Evanston officials found themselves with “all sorts of new friends” at a conference for city managers from across Illinois last week, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said.

Bobkiewicz said his “Evanston” nametag drew the attention of developers and fellow city managers alike. Developers were interested in working with the city on new capital projects and the fellow city managers were interested in learning from Evanston’s successes in online social media outreach and public-private partnerships during a time of tight budgets and shrinking staffs.

“When people hear about Evanston, they shake their heads and ask us, ‘How do you do this?'” he said. “Two developers just walked up to me as I was checking e-mail and handed me their business cards.”

The city has 1,122 followers on Twitter and 3,054 ‘Likes’ on its Facebook page. Bobkiewicz said many municipalities “look up to us as a leader” in local government social media efforts.

The city manager spoke briefly at the conference presentation on public-private partnerships, offering examples such as the new Robert Crown Ice Complex that distinguish the city in a crowd of municipalities that have little or no capital projects on the table. The city is still negotiating with three developers to find one to build, finance and run the center.

“It comes down to figuring out how to use other people’s money to get what you need done,” he said, referring to public-private partnerships.

He credited Adelita Hernandez, the city’s community information specialist, with enhancing Evanston’s social media presence with frequent Twitter and Facebook updates. During the Tuesday phone interview, Bobkiewicz pulled up the city’s Twitter feed and pointed out Hernandez had updated the city’s Twitter seven times over an hour – including four updates about the launch of the 3-1-1 system.

The key to Evanston’s social media success, he said, was making it a part of Hernandez’s daily responsibilities. Other communities are struggling to figure out how to assign the social media duties to staff members during a time of staff layoffs and budget cutbacks.

Evanston’s better-than-most social media efforts were touched on at a presentation about the legal aspects of local governments’ tweeting and posting Facebook updates.

“We’re lucky that the comments, the discourse online has been tame,” Bobkiewicz said, referring to responses to the city’s social media updates. “Other communities don’t have other outlets for citizens to comment.”

Bobkiewicz estimated 200 city managers and a few county managers from around the state attended the Illinois City/County Management Association’s Winter 2011 conference in Rock Island. Evanston’s assistant city manager, Martin Lyons, also attended.

The ILCMA holds two conferences each year – one in the summer, the other in the winter – for municipal officials to compare notes on local government management and hone management skills in training sessions. The Feb. 22-24 conference was Bobkiewicz’s second ILCMA conference.

The city manager credited the conference for giving him and his counterparts across the state a “rare opportunity” to discuss local and state issues in a more informal setting. Bobkiewicz pointed to a conversation he had with a Champaign official over lunch as a good example of the benefits of the conference. As they compared their experiences in a Big Ten city government, the topic of Champaign’s recent 150th anniversary celebrations came up.

Bobkiewicz said he gained valuable insight about the roles of city and state in funding and running such a celebration. Planning for Evanston’s 150th anniversary, in 2013, recently began in earnest.

As for comparing Evanston’s town-gown relations with those of other Big Ten communities, Bobkiewicz said the “challenges we have are a small microcosm” to those that cities like Champaign, with much larger student populations, face.

“Student issues are clustered there and are easier to manage,” Bobkiewicz said. “NU has a very small footprint, but the neighbor-student interactions are more intense here.”

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