City manager finalists answer questions from residents in public forum

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Courtesy City of Evanston, Historic Petersburg Foundation.

The three finalists for Evanston’s city manager position. From left to right, the finalists are Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, Marie Peoples and Erika Storlie.

Jason Beeferman, Reporter

Three finalists in Evanston’s search for its next city manager addressed the community for the first time during a Wednesday night public forum.

The candidates are Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, the current city manager of Petersburg, Va.; Marie Peoples, who is serving as Coconino County, Ariz.’s deputy county manager; and Erika Storlie, the city’s current interim city manager.

During the event, the three applicants discussed how they would approach issues ranging from affordable housing to climate change, addressing forum questions submitted by community members.

Storlie has served as interim city manager for over a year since the position was vacated in September 2019 by Wally Bobkiewicz, the current city administrator for Issaquah, Wash. Plans to replace Bobkiewicz were delayed by the onset of COVID-19, and because of her experience, Storlie said she has “proven herself” during her interim role.

“I don’t have a learning curve,” Storlie said. “I live and breathe Evanston every day.”

Another point of concern for residents during the forum was Evanston’s budgetary issues, which have become exacerbated since the start of the pandemic. In September, the city projected a $12 million dollar shortfall for the current fiscal year due to COVID-19 and forecasted a $5 to 7 million loss in revenue for 2021 budget.

Peoples, who also currently serves as her county’s COVID-19 Incident Commander, said it is crucial to confront budgetary issues with “long-term planning” and create additional sources of revenue.

“Philosophically, we can’t cut our way out of a structural deficit,” Peoples said, while also stressing that fiscal improvement occurs over many budget cycles.

Ferrell-Benavides said she would be able to handle the budget crisis because of her experience in repairing Petersburg’s budgetary deficit, which, at her appointment, was around $20 million, she said.

Under her direction, she said the city of Petersburg was able to increase its fund balance by $15 million — a drastic change from the $7 million dollars the city was in the red when she took office.

Storlie said she plans to reduce Evanston’s deficit through negotiations with vendors and unions. She said she plans to continue these efforts.

“I’m very optimistic about our fiscal future, but it’s going to take some hard decisions over the course of the next few years,” she said.

Many residents also wanted to hear about the candidates’ plans to address systemic racism within city government. On Sept. 18, nine grassroots organizing groups released a statement calling on the city to act on its commitment to supporting racial justice and equity through its chosen city manager. The candidates were also asked to give an example of a time they’ve helped to end or mitigate systemic racism in their previous government experience.

Peoples discussed her role in changing the regulations of a Springfield, Mo. substance abuse recovery program to provide care for more women of color, and Ferrell-Benavides detailed her role in confronting implicit bias in the hiring and promoting practices of the Petersburg Department of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Services. Storlie said her role in drafting Evanston’s reparation legislation has been “one of my greatest career highlights.”

Based on the candidates’ responses from the forum, and individual interviews, the Mayor and City Council will announce the chosen candidate in a Oct. 19 City Council meeting where their contract will also be determined.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @jasonbeeferman

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