City of Evanston undergoes Ninth Ward alderperson search

Editors’ Note: this story was written and published in our print issue prior to Mayor Biss’ announcement. As of Feb. 22, Mayor Biss has named Juan Geracaris as the new Ninth Ward alderperson. Geracaris, as well as Kathy Hayes and Shawn Jones (two other candidates for the aldermanic position), were unavailable for interviews.

On Feb. 14, current Ninth Ward alderwoman Cicely Fleming stepped down from her position. This announcement came just a short time after the death of her mother, Marsha Cole, a longtime resident of the Ninth Ward. Fleming decided to step down from her role after realizing that the position was becoming too taxing.

Fleming was one of nine alders who represent each of Evanston’s nine wards. Each alder is responsible for representing their community and participating as a member of the city council. The Ninth Ward is located in South-West Evanston, running along Main Street from Chicago Avenue to McCormick.

Now that there is a vacancy in the aldermanic position, six residents have expressed interest in the position or formally confirmed their candidacy. Those residents are Dan Coyne, Juan Geracaris, Ric Goodwill, Kathy Hayes, Shawn Jones and Sebastian Nalls. Many of the candidates have lived in the Ninth Ward neighborhood for decades and have been active in the political scene of Evanston recently.

The Ninth Ward is a very residential neighborhood, and the lack of local business negatively impacts economic development, per some residents. Another concern expressed by Ninth Ward residents is a shortage of public land, such as parks, compared to other wards.

Since the aldermanic position is transitioning midterm, the provisional candidates must apply, but Mayor Daniel Biss has the final say in who will fill the vacancy once Fleming steps down. The due date for applications was Feb. 14, and it will be followed by a public meeting where all the candidates can introduce themselves to the community. This meeting was held on Feb. 17. Biss announced his choice on Feb. 22 and, on Mar. 1, the new temporary alder will formally take office. An important aspect to note is that Biss’s choice of alderperson will have to be approved by five out of the nine city council members for the process to continue.

As a council member, an alder serves a four-year term and works with the mayor and other city government officials to address and improve the city policy of Evanston. In addition to working on city policy, council members oversee Evanston’s budget and the city manager.

The alder appointed after this current nomination process would serve for one year, and then in 2023, a special election would be held, where residents of the Ninth Ward would get to vote on who they want as their alder for the next two years. The winner of that election would serve out the rest of Fleming’s term, until 2025, when general aldermanic elections will take place.

Being an alder in Evanston is part-time, low-paid, and many balance it with other professional careers and pursuits. That said, it is a significant time commitment, both to the city and the residents who inhabit the ward. 

One of the residents who will apply for the aldermanic position is Sebastian Nalls, a graduate of ETHS and a current student at Purdue University. He had previously run as a mayoral candidate in 2021 but finished third in the election. When the Ninth Ward alder position opened up, he saw new opportunities to continue his political career and community advocacy.

“I saw it as a unique opportunity—whoever was going to fill that position would be going forward and implementing positive change in Evanston, and in the Ninth Ward,” said Nalls.

Even though Nalls is younger than the average politician, that doesn’t mean that he is inexperienced or unqualified. Besides running a mayoral campaign last year, he has spent the last seven months working for the governor’s Office of Equity and doing other advocacy work on the side. He believes that this work makes him the best candidate for alder in the community that he loves.

“My concern is improving the community that has made me the person I am today. That is my goal, first and foremost, that I’m giving back to this community and serving. And I believe that I can truly do that if I were to be appointed Ninth Ward Alderman,” Nalls explained.

Each candidate also has a specific set of issues that they would like to address. For Nalls, those issues are affordability, public safety, and collaboration. 

In terms of affordability, Nalls highlights the high tax rates in Evanston and the ever increasing cost of living. He plans to relieve the tax pressure from Evanston residents by creating new ways of generating revenue, taxing larger institutions that don’t pay many taxes, like Northwestern, and reallocating budget resources.

On the issue of public safety, Nalls stressed the importance of reimagining the current model of public safety that goes beyond only policing.

“Are we providing mental health options, are we providing programs for youth, are we providing early childcare systems for families as well that can’t afford them?,” asked Nalls. “We need to move beyond just assuming that public safety has to do with policing, that it goes hand in hand with making our community a better place.”

Another key aspect of the aldermanic position is working with the community to try to address resident needs. For Nalls, that means opening up his doors to the community and really listening to what they have to say. By doing this, he would make it easier for residents to be more involved in the political process in Evanston. Nalls would hold office hours twice a week so that residents could express their concerns and collaborate with him on solutions.

Outreach also involves action on the sides of the elected official though, and Nalls plans to engage residents himself by going to community events, meeting and advocacy groups to have real discussions with residents about how to improve their neighborhood.

Nalls explained, “My largest objective out of this entire process is making sure that residents feel that they’re being recognized, that their concerns are being addressed, and that they’re consistently being kept in the loop.”

Nalls went on to add,  “We are not perfect by any stretch of imagination, there’s still a lot of work that we can do. And I believe that this council seat would give me the opportunity to continue to give back to this community. And that’s what I appreciate so much. And that’s what I want to achieve.”

Another resident who is very interested in the city council seat is Dan Coyne, who has lived in the Ninth Ward for 30 years. After studying clinical social work at the University of Chicago, Coyne became a school social worker. 

Currently, he works in District 65, at Lincoln and Oakton Elementary Schools, teaching peacemaking to the student body. He teaches a class at those schools called SEEL, (Social, Emotional, Equitable Learning), which models for students how to use social emotional language and behaviors to improve themselves and the world around them. Coyne thinks that he can bring important lessons from his professional career into the city government if he gets nominated. 

Coyne saw the opportunity to make a bigger impact in the community when Fleming decided to step down. As a social worker, he commended her ability to recognize her needs, which in this case meant stepping back from a stressful job.  “As a mental health therapist myself, I’m very proud of how she was able to self-assess her situation and not allow the council job to overtake her life,” Coyne mentioned. “And I think that’s healthy for any human being, quite frankly.”

Two issues that Coyne is particularly invested in are at-risk teens and affordable housing. But what he really wants to achieve is lots of collaboration with other members of the community. 

“I’ve lived here in the Ninth Ward now for 30 years. I love our city very much. I have spent my whole adult life supporting the idea of building community, whether it’s in my little classrooms with students, or whether it’s with different non for profit groups that I work with,” said Coyne.

That collaboration also includes the city council.

“What I would like to do, as far as an outcome, whether it’s just one year or three years on this team of city council, is to be a team member that helps our city grow to a better place.” Coyne elaborated. “What I would like to do is to find common ground with the other council members to find out how we could collaborate together to best implement better policy and procedures for our city.”

One important point that Coyne recognized was that every one of the candidates would be a good fit for the job, and they each bring a specific set of skills to the table.

“It’s just a matter of how the mayor feels in appointing someone that would be the best fit for the City Council,” Coyne said.

The third provisional candidate who The Evanstonian spoke to  was Ric Goodwill, an attorney who currently focuses on commercial litigation. He set up his own law practice after working in environmental law for twenty-five years, and wants to spend his extra time giving back to the community. 

There were two recent incidents that prompted his interest in the aldermanic position, both involving violence in the Evanston community.

“There were a couple incidents recently, [that prompted me to run], one was that there was a lockdown at school. There was a concern about guns being present in school, so that was something that gave me some concern and prompted me to get a little more involved. And this was a good avenue to get more involved,” Goodwill said. “And the other one was the shooting on Green Bay Road that happened around Thanksgiving.”

Goodwill and his family knew some of the people involved in the conflict, and that struck a particularly resonant chord with him.

Goodwill explained, “I knew who they were. And that was a shock.” 

If he was appointed as the provisional Ninth Ward alder, Goodwill would like to prioritize four areas of improvement in our community.

One of those areas is education, and more specifically, equality in the education system for Black and Latinos. Goodwill wants to help people take advantage of the resources available to them that are sometimes hard to access. That would include areas such as AP course enrollment, academic supports like AVID, and other opportunities.

Another point of focus for Goodwill, in the same vein as improving educational resources, is to provide better access to trauma and mental health services. He likes the idea of a program called the Living Room, where people can go to deal with emotional stresses, but wishes programs like that were available to children.

Goodwill would also like to see redirected funding in the police department, not defunding. He remarked that there was a noticeable drop in the number of officers in the force, and that would need to be addressed.

As an alder he would also focus on reparations. He thinks that he can bring his experience in environmental law into the effort of improving conditions in the Ninth Ward. One of those efforts would be that of developing a plan and raising funds to replace lead water pipes in Evanston, a problem that has disproportionately affected people of color. 

Goodwill has many plans for the community if he were to be alder. He, like the other candidates interviewed, wants to give back to the Evanston community he loves. 

Three additional Evanston residents have expressed interest in the alder position: Kathy Hayes, Juan Geracaris, and Shawn Jones. They were not available for interviews, but they are still candidates for appointment by Biss.

Hayes was born and raised in Evanston, and is a retired professional. She was a social service case manager, social worker, and analyst, who also worked for thirty-five years in government services for Cook County.

Geracaris works at Northwestern University, as well as being on the PTA of Oakton Elementary school, and a board member of Evanston Latinos.

Jones ran against Fleming in the last aldermanic election. He is an attorney and has served on the Housing and Development Committee here in Evanston.

It’s now up to Biss, and the city council, to decide who gets the coveted job. 

“I look forward to an open, inclusive process that will enable us to best fill this important role in our City government,” Biss wrote in a statement on February 1.