‘I need help:’ Ald. Bobby Burns pushes for city to fund administrative help for councilmembers


Daily file photo by Madison Smith

Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) is pushing for the city to hire a contractor as “virtual executive assistant” that can provide administrative assistance to councilmembers.

Saul Pink, Assistant City Editor

Ald. Bobby Burns’ (5th) day of city duties last Monday totaled over six hours. He began with a meeting about a rental licensing program initiative, then met with a resident who wants the city to install chess tables at Twiggs Park and finally attended a meeting about the opening of a 5th Ward school — calling residents and answering emails in between. 

Full days of work like this one are part of being an Evanston councilmember, a job that pays $15,990 annually. Burns is pushing for the city to help fund administrative work and communications for councilmembers to help them manage their time.

Burns said the combination of low compensation and high demands of the job limit who can run for office.

A freelance political consultant, Burns said he wouldn’t be able give full effort to his aldermanic work if he had a nine-to-five job. Serving on City Council, he said, is “really only suited for someone that’s retired or independently wealthy.”

His current proposal requires the city hire a “virtual executive assistant” — one outside contractor who could help each councilmember with administrative work, answering emails and scheduling appointments with residents. 

Burns first suggested in early October that the city allocate $15,000 to each councilmember to hire help with communications. But, the Rules Committee raised concerns about elected officials personally managing city funds, and its narrow purview of communications-related work.

Other councilmembers resonated with Burns’ call for greater assistance. 

Ald. Krissie Harris (2nd), has been on the council for under two months. She said the position requires numerous small jobs, including the time-consuming task of taking pictures of dilapidated sidewalks that residents email her about. 

“Citizens are concerned and reaching out, calling, having questions, having requests,” Harris said. “It’s nothing to me that’s been inappropriate. Nothing that we can’t collectively figure out.”

The duties of an Evanston councilmember go far beyond policymaking, Burns said. He cited resolving landlord-tenant disputes and dealing with conflicts between neighbors as examples of issues he handles daily. 

“We have a constituency that expects a lot from their government, including their elected officials,” Burns told The Daily. “If a resident does not feel like they’re getting the service that they expect to get, I get called in to help mediate or advocate for the residents.”

Burns, who sits on 15 committees, acknowledged that the historically Black 5th Ward has higher health inequalities and lower incomes, which gives him more needs to address. According to the city’s Health and Human Services Department, 5th Ward residents have a life expectancy five to 13 years shorter than residents in predominantly white neighborhoods. 

Former 4th Ward alderman Don Wilson said he would have benefitted from administrative help during his 12 years on the council. He said residents have unrealistic expectations for their councilmembers.

“The job, in my view, is more oriented towards helping the people in the ward by establishing and setting policy, not to run the day-to-day operations of the city,” Wilson said.

The Rules Committee discussed Burns’ original proposal on Oct. 3. Ald. Juan Geracaris (9th) agreed that councilmembers need funding from the city, adding that he pays out of his pocket for a Spanish interpreter at his ward meetings.

Most members of the committee wanted assistance, but disagreed on what it should look like. 

Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) said the city should hire permanent staff to assist councilmembers. Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) agreed, but noted that it will require sacrifices in the city’s budget. 

“I’d like to be weighing this decision when I’m looking at the whole 2023 budget because I think we’re gonna have a lot of tradeoffs that we need to make,” Revelle said. 

The proposal is not in the current budget, but Burns hopes to pass it before the council’s Dec. 31 budget approval deadline. 

Increasing councilmembers’ salaries could also work if outside administrative help can’t be hired, Burns said, but these negotiations only happen every four years. The last salary increase came at the beginning of 2017, and the next opportunity will come in 2025. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $15,990 in 2017 has the same purchasing power as about $19,500 today, given inflation.

Burns stressed that his priority is adding assistance for councilmembers to the 2023 budget. 

“I really do not have the time to write a sentence of a newsletter,” Burns said at the Rules Committee meeting. “It’s taking away precious time that I would rather be spending with my family and preparing for these meetings, which is difficult enough to do. I need help.”

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Twitter: @saullpink

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