Evanston’s Community Alliance for Better Government works to increase transparency, inform community

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Daily file illustration by Catherine Buchaniec

Members of the Community Alliance for Better Government recently partnered with Mayor Daniel Biss to present “How an Idea Becomes an Ordinance.”

Avani Kalra, Assistant City Editor

In 2018, Rick Marsh rushed to City Council to voice his disappointment when Evanston fired Kevin Brown, the director of Evanston’s outreach program for at-risk youth.

But while voicing his concern during public comment, he grew increasingly disappointed with the methods he was offered to express his chagrin. Marsh said he felt ignored, and that the minute-and-a-half he had to speak was not sufficient.

Shortly afterward, he met with Evanston residents Bennett Johnson, Oliver Ruff and Gail Schechter, who had also protested Brown’s firing. They wanted to determine how best to demand attention. 

Their answer was the Community Alliance for Better Government, a grassroots organization focusing on increasing transparency in local politics with a focus on equity. 

“The four of us got together and said, ‘Let’s build a grassroots organization to start developing how we can better get our voices heard,’” Marsh said. “Let’s get our citizens to be more involved in politics … Accurate transparency and accountability were the main things that drove us.”  

During last year’s municipal elections, Marsh said the group saw an opportunity to promote a progressive slate of City Council members by canvassing, interviewing potential candidates and developing an endorsement process.

Former mayoral candidate and 9th Ward aldermanic candidate Sebastian Nalls joined the organization’s board after the election cycle.

“Even though they didn’t endorse me, I was extremely proud to be a part of it,” Nalls said. “The primary focus during that election season was to educate residents about different candidates that held progressive values.”

Since the election season, Nalls said CABG has worked to educate Evanston residents on relevant city issues and provide explainers on politicians. The organization’s website hosts a “Council Voting Database” that residents can use to search for votes and opinions from councilmembers. The database also includes breakdowns on certain legislative votes.

“If you want to find out how a City Council member has voted over the last couple of years on, say, affordable housing, there was no simple way to do that,” CABG Board Member Lesley Williams said. “(The database) will really help Evanston be more accountable to the residents.” 

CABG hosted town halls and forums for citizens to learn about general processes and current issues in the Evanston area, such as an event on “How an Idea Becomes an Ordinance.” 

Through educating Evanston residents on these issues, Williams said the organization hopes to promote community involvement on city decisions. 

The group is focused on promoting citizen input in hiring Evanston’s new police chief and city manager. 

Nalls said CABG put out a news release at the beginning of the city manager process asking for public participation and a thoughtful process. The city provided residents the opportunity to interview the position finalists.

“We saw a city manager process that really blossomed out of that,” Nalls said. “It included a good amount of public participation. We can see that the work that we’re doing is having a meaningful impact.”

Email: [email protected]northwestern.edu

Twitter: @avanidkalra

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