Daily file photo by Colin Boyle
Evanston City Council announced Tuesday it had selected Erika Storlie as its finalist to fill its open city manager role, amid public opposition from many residents to the possibility of her appointment.
Storlie, who has served as Evanston’s interim city manager since September 2019 and has been a city employee since 2004, was one of three finalists for the job. The other two finalists were Aretha Ferrell-Benavides, who is the current city manager of Petersburg, Va., and Marie Peoples, who is serving as Coconino County, Ariz.’s deputy county manager.
City Council is slated to vote on Storlie’s contract on Monday. The approval of the contract would finalize her appointment as Evanston’s next City Manager. According to the contract, Storlie’s annual salary will be $225,000 — nearly $10,000 more than her predecessor, Wally Bobkiewicz.
But residents have questioned Storlie’s preparation for the job, especially on the fronts of equity and inclusion, when compared to the other two finalists, who are both Black women.
Did all roads lead to Storlie?
The city hired GovHR USA, an administrative hiring agency, to conduct the search for the next city manager in January. The three finalists were announced from among 76 applicants in early October.
Even before the city announced its final decision, some residents assumed City Council would nominate Storlie. The assumption came in part from a May proposal to cut short the nationwide search for a new city manager, directly appointing Storlie to the position instead.
Proponents of the direct appointment, including Mayor Steve Hagerty, said Storlie had proven herself ready for the role, both through her years of service to the city and her time as interim city manager during the pandemic. Additionally, Hagerty said he was concerned about the implications of selecting a candidate who would be willing to leave the community they served in a time of crisis.
However, many residents opposed Storlie’s direct appointment, saying it was the exact opposite of the transparent public hiring process the public called for.
Before the June 8 City Council meeting where the Council was slated to vote on the direct appointment, members of Evanston grassroots groups like the Organization for Positive Action and Leadership, Community Alliance for Better Government and Dear Evanston held a socially distanced rally calling on the city to vote against the proposed nomination.
Prior to the meeting, Storlie said she supported the completion of a public process as was planned — a statement Evanston grassroots activist Allie Harned said may have been the “tipping point” in the decision to proceed with the search.
“I’ve been here for 16 years. I know the public process has been at the core of what Evanston and who Evanston is,” Storlie said at the time.
At the meeting, City Council voted against the direct appointment, and the search continued.
Involving the public in the search
Throughout the search process, the city opened up multiple points for public input, including two recruitment meetings this summer. As part of the efforts to generate the job description, residents emphasized the importance of racial equity, social awareness and budget consciousness.
After the names of the three finalists were made public, residents were also given the chance to attend an Oct. 7 public forum in which the candidates answered questions about issues like affordable housing, climate change and other essential topics.
However, some residents, like former Evanston Public Library librarian Lesley Williams, said the public forum indicated that other candidates may have been better suited for the job than Storlie.
“Given the extreme budget problems that we have in Evanston, it’s really kind of surprising that the council would choose someone like (Storlie) over someone who had so much direct experience with budgeting,” Williams said.
Additionally, some residents criticized Storlie’s response to a question asking about her previous work related to equity initiatives. Storlie talked about her role in the implementation of Evanston’s reparations program — but some residents said she was taking credit for the work of Ald. Robin Rue Simmons (5th).
Over a dozen residents spoke out at public comment during Monday’s City Council meeting, sharing their support for Ferrell-Benavides and Peoples ahead of Tuesday’s announcement. City Council decided on their finalist in a closed executive session soon after the public forum, which many residents said limited time for public input and response after the event. Storlie was announced as the Council’s choice several days after Monday’s meeting.
Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) said in an update on her website that she, along with Ald. Thomas Suffredin (6th), advocated for a public vote on the candidate selection. However, none of the other members of City Council agreed with them, resulting in the private vote.
An announcement and a reaction
The announcement that Storlie would be the city’s final choice was met with significant public outcry. Many residents took to Facebook, responding to the city’s post announcing the nomination with negative comments. Commenters said the city discounted residents’ input and didn’t choose the best candidate for the job.
Jessica Sales, the former chair of the city’s Mental Health Board, resigned from her position on Wednesday in direct response to the selection of Storlie as the city manager finalist.
Sales said she was disappointed by the city’s choice, because she feels that it doesn’t represent Evanston’s stated commitment to equity and inclusion. As a result, she said she has become disillusioned about the role residents play in the city’s governing process.
“I no longer want to be complicit in recommending that Black or brown constituents consider serving on a board, because I really fear that that adds to their previous experiences of marginalization or tokenization,” Sales said. “I don’t feel that those places are a safe place to their work and contributions and labor would be rewarded.”
Local grassroots organizers from multiple groups, including Evanston-based Facebook organizing group Every Single Person Committed to Anti-Racism, organized a Friday protest against Storlie’s appointment. Ahead of the event, over 100 residents have expressed interest in attending the protest.
Harned, the Evanston activist, is also a member of the group and one of the organizers for the protest. She said she hopes the event will pressure City Council to reverse their decision and vote against the approval of Storlie’s contract.
Instead, Harned said she hopes to see the city either consider another candidate, restart the selection process or wait to choose a new city manager until after the April aldermanic elections.
“(Storlie) is a safe choice and an easy choice for them to make, whereas choosing an outsider to come in and maybe really shake things up is a brave choice and a bold choice,” Harned said. “We want brave, bold, proactive leadership in this town that’s going to make people uncomfortable, so that we can actually try to get closer to racial equity than we’re at right now.”
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— City Council nominates Erika Storlie as next city manager
— Residents express dismay with city manager search, claim lack of transparency