Mayor Daniel Biss discusses turbulent city manager search during town hall forum


Daily file photo by Jacob Wendler

Mayor Daniel Biss. At a Tuesday town hall, Biss discussed the role of the city manager and Evanston’s current steps to find its next manager.

Yiming Fu, Managing Editor

Mayor Daniel Biss addressed Evanston’s city staffing shortages and responded to resident concerns of a lack of transparency and diversity in the 14-month long city manager search in a Tuesday town hall meeting. 

Evanston RoundTable reporter Bob Seidenberg moderated the event, and around 50 residents filled the seats at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center to listen and ask questions.  

After former city manager Erika Storlie resigned in October 2021, the city has led two failed city manager searches, with the first concluding in January and the next in May. Evanston spent an estimated $95,000 hiring search firms CPS HR and Stanton Chase. 

A city manager oversees the budget process, hiring of city staff, and daily operations of the city’s government to make sure all operations are running smoothly. 

“The council and the mayor set the agenda and the policies, but the day-to-day leadership comes from somebody else,” Biss said. “It becomes really a challenge to make long term changes for people who don’t know what that long term role is going to look like. So that’s the situation that we’re confronted with now, which is what makes this decision so significant.” 

Many residents expressed concerns over the lack of transparency in the city’s search to find a new city manager, with some saying that resident engagement in the search process has dwindled with each search. 

In response, Biss said he thinks the council will not confirm a new city manager without introducing them to the public first. He added that an open and public search process narrows the candidate field and excludes unique or “out of the box” candidates who don’t come from traditional city manager backgrounds. 

Most potential candidates don’t have employers who are used to them jumping from one city manager job to publicly interview for another one, Biss said. To illustrate his point, he posed a hypothetical scenario in which someone in a position like Chicago’s director of family and support services would want the city manager job. 

“If somebody were in that role and were doing a great job in that role and were looking to move, I think that’d be a great example of the type of outside the box candidate school we’d be looking for,” Biss said. “Now, do you think that person would be comfortable telling Lori Lightfoot, with the mayoral election coming up in 2023, that they were on the job market and looking at other opportunities? No way. We would lose that candidate in a heartbeat.”

At the meeting, Biss also addressed resident concerns surrounding the last two city manager finalists, who were both straight white men. He said the council discussed thoroughly and ultimately decided to pick the strongest candidates. 

Evanston’s city manager search has been mired in diversity concerns. The city decided to confirm Storlie, a white woman, as city manager in October 2020, picking her over two Black women candidates that many residents said were more qualified for the job.  

Emily Guthrie, a former 3rd Ward councilmember, said she showed up to Tuesday’s meeting because she was concerned by how the city manager search has gone “on and on and on.” 

Overall, Guthrie said she was impressed by the town hall and that Biss answered the questions well. She said she disagreed with the mayor, however, when he said that the city has been failing to meet its goals and is not able to make long term plans because of the lack of a permanent city manager. 

“The city sets out goals — we do five year goals, 10-year goals, 15-year goals. Those don’t change. When your city manager is not present, those things keep moving forward. Different departments have a piece of that action and they should be moving it forward without a city manager,” Guthrie said. 

A 24-year Evanston resident who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons said she felt frustrated at the event because while Biss is well spoken, his actions often don’t match his words. 

“I don’t see that we’re ever going to get transparency,” she said. “Biss is too nice. He’s a politician so he doesn’t want to say anything that’s going to upset people, the people who give him money.” 

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