City manager search continues, interim city manager looks to year ahead

Molly Lubbers and Christopher Vazquez

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MOLLY LUBBERS: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Molly Lubbers, and this is Everything Evanston. It’s been almost five months since Wally Bobkiewicz’s final day as city manager. He announced his resignation on August 13th of last year, and on the same day, Mayor Steve Hagerty released a statement. Within it, he said the city manager search process would begin at the next City Council meeting, set for Sept. 9.

MOLLY LUBBERS: As of right now, no new city manager has been selected. So how did we get here? For the past few months, City Council conducted a search, not for a city manager, but for a recruitment firm. These firms, also called search firms, professionally recruit people for job positions. During this search process, there’s been recommendations, votes and changes. And to understand it all, we have to start at that September meeting.

MOLLY LUBBERS: In that meeting, all nine aldermen voted to direct the Human Resources Manager to solicit quotes from search firms. That basically means city staff looked into how much it would cost to hire a firm. Two weeks later, city staff recommended aldermen to approve a contract with GovHR USA. That’s a search firm based out of Northbrook, Ill. At the same time, some aldermen voiced concerns about GovHR. Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons (5th) was one of them.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: It was a staff recommendation that we move forward with GovHR and that was met with some opposition, myself included. I always like to see a process. We should not decide on one organization over another, we should have a competitive process.

MOLLY LUBBERS: The item was referred to a Rules Committee meeting on Oct. 7 where city staff recommended three firms, including GovHR, to be interviewed for a contract. The majority of the committee, made up of the nine aldermen and the mayor, voted to recommend City Council hire GovHR. Alderman Suffredin was one of the people who voted no. He said he was concerned with the neutrality of GovHR because previous city staff work at the search firm.

THOMAS SUFFREDIN: The big issue that I have with GovHR in terms of this particular search is that there is no reason to not explore using another company who is equally qualified and would remove any sort of doubt about the legitimacy of whoever the ultimate candidate that we choose is.

MOLLY LUBBERS: Now, here’s where things may seem complicated. There was a majority vote at the Rules Committee meeting, but that doesn’t mean City Council actually hired GovHR. Because it’s a contract, Interim City Manager Erika Storlie said the item would return to City Council and go through a standard process.

MOLLY LUBBERS: At an Administration & Public Works Committee meeting on Oct. 28, the contract proposal with GovHR was defeated in a 2-3 vote. This time, Aldermen Ciceley Fleming, Suffredin, and Rue Simmons voted against it. After that vote, an interview team for multiple search firm candidates was created.

MOLLY LUBBERS: Rue Simmons said she was originally concerned with the lack of diversity in GovHR leadership, so she wanted an interview team that was inclusive of different identities.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: When our staff put together the team to consider the candidates, I asked, “Is there one of my colleagues that is a woman, and one that is a person of color that is already volunteered to be on the committee?” I was told, “Yes, there is a person of color, there are women,” and with the diversity being represented on the City Council, I was OK just trusting my colleagues’ leadership to take us through that process.

MOLLY LUBBERS: The council agreed to interview three recruitment firms. A group of aldermen conducted the interviews, and the majority recommended GovHR. On Jan. 13, City Council approved a contract with GovHR. This time, Alderwoman Rue Simmons voted yes.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: I trust the leadership of the councilpeople that made the decision to ultimately go with GovHR. I understand that the other firms were professionally inferior and did not have the experience, the professionalism. They just were not as qualified as GovHR.

MOLLY LUBBERS: Suffredin and Fleming maintained their position and voted against the contract.

THOMAS SUFFREDIN: I think it’s clear that there are people who are really pushing for GovHR. And you have to ask yourself why? Because I don’t think that the search firm is as important as getting the search done, and we’re already behind on this.

MOLLY LUBBERS: Looking forward, both Suffredin and Rue Simmons said the community should be involved in the city manager search process.

THOMAS SUFFREDIN: If we want people to believe that we pick the best candidate, without any outside influence from GovHR or any previous Evanston staff, we should have that process be as completely public and transparent as possible.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: So, I’m hoping that they will take the community through a process where we take input in what we like to see in a city manager, what our highest priority is, so that as they are considering candidates, they’re looking for skill set and best practices and ability and background and education that will translate into someone that can meet our expectations here in Evanston.

STEVE HAGERTY: I’m recommending the adoption of this resolution appointing Erika Storlie as our interim city manager.

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Christopher Vazquez. As the search for Evanston’s next city manager plays out, Erika Storlie is currently filling the role as interim city manager.

ERIKA STORLIE: You know, starting a new chapter of 2020, a new decade, a new year, I think everybody feels this positive energy around where we’re headed and what we’re doing. When the city is working well, the city manager is just helping the city with the day-to-day operations. The way that I approach it is to be patient, even-keeled, look at both sides of every issue, try to take in the different perspectives.

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: And as the new chapter of 2020 begins, Storlie’s appointment has made her the the first openly LGBTQ woman to serve in the role of city manager, at least in recent memory.

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: So I guess what has the significance of that been to you?

ERIKA STORLIE: I need to think about this one for a minute. I think because I’ve been here as long as I’ve been here, 15 years, over time I’ve generated a lot of respect. Everybody sees me as Erika. They don’t see me as, you know, LGBTQ leader in this role, but that’s certainly a part of who I am and a part of me that I’m very proud of. And so I appreciate that I have, you know, that sort of visibility that I can help be a role model to other people. I think one of the things that I’ve learned through my work here is that,even though Evanston is very much a progressive and liberal place, people find that there are still challenges to being an LGBTQ person in Evanston. And so that’s something that I think we try to work on every day is like, how can we be more welcoming? How can we make sure that we can provide services and meet the needs of the residents, whether they’re LGBTQ or any other vulnerable population?

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: This historic moment came after years of her working for the city and earning the respect of her peers.

STEVE HAGERTY: Erika Storlie has served as our assistant city manager. I think she’s highly capable and qualified to lead us during this transition period.

ERIKA STORLIE: So I started in 2004. It was a very different organization then. We’ve certainly grown a lot and changed a lot, and I would definitely say for the better. I started out in the IT department. Experiencing the recession in those years, we lost a lot of staff and so we’re much leaner now. So that’s been challenging, but then I moved to the city manager’s office and then from there couple of years ago, the assistant city manager and now the interim city manager.

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: Storlie stepped into the role in late September, after former city manager Wally Bobkiewicz accepted a position as the city administrator in Washington State.

ERIKA STORLIE: We worked together for 10 years. So that was a long time to, you know, sort of be co-pilots. And when he left, it was just a strange vibe, but at the same time, it gave me this opportunity to sort of grow in my own leadership. It’s been a lot of challenge, but also a lot of fun.

STEVE HAGERTY: OK, all in favor?

ALDERMEN: Aye.

STEVE HAGERTY: Any opposed? OK, Resolution 87R-19, appointing interim city manager, passes as amended on a nine to zero vote.

ERIKE STORLIE: New year, new decade. There’s so much to do. I mean, Evanston is a place that, since the day I started here in 2004, I feel like it’s just full of potential. We’ve made so many strides, but yet we still have so far to go.

CHRISTOPHER VAZQUEZ: Thanks for listening. We’ll see you in our next episode, two weeks from now.

Email: mollylubbers2023@u.northwestern.edu, christophervazquez2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @mollylubbers, @bychrisvazquez

Related stories:
Rules Committee Recommends GovHR for City Manager Search
City Council approves GovHR city manager search contract
Evanston appoints new assistant city manager

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