Evanston concludes year-long search for city manager

Milo Slevin, Staff Writer

When Evanston City Manager Luke Stowe enters his office every day, he blocks out the chaos surrounding his new job and gets to work on making Evanston a better place. In the past year, he has seen a city manager step down because of a scandal, a candidate for the job take a different position at the last second, another candidate drop out because of a contract dispute and another candidate driven away because of her controversial history. Stowe, a 10-year city employee, has seen the best and the worst of the city government. And now, after a nationwide job search and several failed candidacies, Stowe takes over the most important role in the Evanston government. 

The city manager position is, in a way, the CEO of the government, and no, he’s not the mayor. Whereas the mayor presides over the city council, the city manager oversees the day-to-day operations of the city itself. 

“I’m not directly part of the policymaking process; most of that is left up to the mayor and the council,” Stowe explains. “But then, after they make a decision on something, it’s generally up to me and city staff to implement those policy desires.”

For example, Stowe’s office oversees the Department of Parks and Recreation, so he might be responsible for guiding projects like building a new park or cleaning the beaches. He also supervises the police department, so he maintains contact with the police chief to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It doesn’t stop there, since Stowe and the deputy city manager preside over all Evanston operations.

Clearly, the city manager position is critical to Evanston. So why haven’t many Evanston residents heard of it? Why isn’t it on Evanstonians’ voting ballot or in their weekly city newsletters? Maybe that’s because the city manager is not an elected office. Unlike the mayor, the position is appointed by the city council and isn’t obliged to have direct contact with the public.

However, oftentimes, the city manager can’t avoid the spotlight. A scandal surrounding sexual misconduct by Evanston lifeguard supervisors led to city manager and long-time Evanston employee Erika Storlie leaving office on Oct. 8, 2021. Because of an agreement between her and the city council, details of her involvement in the scandal are unclear. 

After that, the city was ready to find a new, qualified city manager. The City Council hired several recruitment firms to conduct a nationwide search spanning over several months. 

In January, the council brought in their top candidate: Daniel Ramos, a Deputy City Manager for the City of Baltimore. However, his candidacy didn’t last long. 

“We would have really been excited about Mr. Ramos,” explains alderman Devon Reid, “but the city council took a bit too much time to coalesce around him, so Daniel ended up taking a job in Houston, Texas.”

Just like that, the council had missed its first chance to bring in a new permanent city manager. Fear not, though, because the nationwide search yielded a new finalist a few months later.

John Fournier, an administrator in Ann Arbor, Mich., was appointed as city manager on May 23. However, literally the next day, he reopened contract negotiations because of a misunderstanding surrounding a small clause in his contract. 

“[That misunderstanding] led to a disagreement between the council and John on what would be presented to him as a part of his compensation package and that caused Mr. Fournier to withdraw,” says Reid.

With Fournier gone, it had been over half a year since Storlie stepped down, and there remained no permanent city manager. Luckily for the city, throughout the hiring process, city employee Kelly Gandurski filled in as interim city manager. Even so, in an interim position, Gandurski wasn’t given the jurisdiction that a full-time city manager would have had. 

“Once you know that you’re in the permanent position, you definitely feel that you’re in a better position to move forward and make decisions, as opposed to ‘let’s hold off on some bigger decisions because we know there’s going to be a new city manager,’” Stowe states. 

Unfortunately, Gandurski found a job elsewhere before a permanent city manager was hired.

In summary, when Fournier’s candidacy failed, the government wasn’t functioning at full capacity and the council was yet to find a new city manager. What was next? Did the council finally find their person? Did they at least find a more committed candidate? Nope. How about the most polarizing candidate yet: Carol Mitten. 

Mitten is the city administrator in Urbana, Ill., which is a smaller city than Evanston. In her time in Urbana, Mitten was surrounded by controversy that was brought to light when she was announced as the lone finalist for the job in July. 

Mitten faced immediate backlash from organizations like Evanston Fight for Black Lives, who criticized instances where she defended police officers’ use of violence. She also met heavy criticism from Reid and other city officials.

Reid cites a situation where a young woman in Urbana was slammed to the ground by a police officer and Mitten said that “the only person that got hurt was a police officer.” Reid and other protesters see that rhetoric as a major step backwards for the City of Evanston.

“Carol Mitten demonstrated a lack of cultural awareness, which, as the city manager, I don’t think would have translated well to improving relationships with the black community in the city, and various other minority populations in the city,” Reid concludes. 

The Evanstonian reached out to Mitten for an interview, but she politely declined. In an email, she said, “I have had more than my share of attention from my adventures in Evanston, and I really don’t want to revisit the issue, particularly in the media.”

Once Mitten’s candidacy failed, the City Council looked inward at their interim city manager, Luke Stowe. Two weeks later, he was hired. Stowe has about a decade of experience in the Evanston government and meets all of the qualifications that the council was looking for.

With Stowe’s hiring, a search in which the city spent about $100,000 on hiring firms and countless hours deliberating was finally over. Some may say that the search was a huge waste of resources given that the council settled on an internal candidate. However, Reid doesn’t see it that way. 

“I do think that the dollar amount that we spent was certainly worth it, even though we ended up landing on an internal candidate,” he said.

Nonetheless, the painfully long process begs the question: why was it so hard to hire a city manager? Was it something about Evanston? Was it just unlucky? Reid believes it was unluckiness with a bit of dysfunction in how the candidates were handled. He consistently cites two main parts of the process that were bungled. The first was the council’s indecision in hiring Ramos, and the second was that Mitten was the only candidate brought forward in July. Maybe if the council had been a little more proactive, the process would have been a lot smoother.

Also, Stowe notes that Evanston has “what I would describe as urban challenges, but our residents often have Northshore type expectations.” In some senses, Evanston is an average suburb. However, it is a more racially and economically diverse city than their neighbors to the north. As Stowe explains, it is also a more expansive government with more responsibilities than those of neighboring towns. Some job candidates may have stayed away from the tall task of being Evanston city manager.

Fortunately, Stowe is ready to face the challenge head on. With a couple of months under his belt, he reports that everything is going smoothly. Currently, he is developing the 2023 budget, helping new police chief Schenita Stewart settle in, and furthering his goals on racial equity within the city government. 

After 312 painstaking days of searching, discussing, and evaluating, the Evanston government is functioning at full capacity. Now in office, Stowe will continue to do what he does best: put his head down, push the drama aside and go to work.