Last week, the City of Evanston announced that Carol Mitten, the current city manager of Urbana, Illinois, was the only finalist for the vacant position of city manager. Evanston has not had a permanent city manager in nearly 10 months, and two previous searches conducted this year ended without a final hire.
As part of the final decision-making process for City Council, Mitten answered questions from the public at a city hall event at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center on Thursday, July 28th.
Mayor Daniel Biss moderated the discussion and asked the questions, both sent online in advance and in person at city hall.
Entering Thursday’s conversation, however, several articles published by media outlets in the Urbana area began to circulate through Evanston’s community circles and groups. These articles allege that Mitten and other Urbana City officials violated the Open Meetings Act multiple times, failed to write a resident’s name and home address in an online document, and concealed police complaints.
After these allegations came to light, Evanston Fight for Black Lives – a local activist group that reflects “the values of the national Black Lives Matter movement” – shared social media posts encouraging residents to ask council members to vote “no” in Mitten’s candidacy. to the municipal manager.
And at a virtual 8th Ward meeting held Thursday night just before town hall with Mitten, Council Member Devon Reid said that while he believes she is qualified for the role given her experience leading local government, he is concerned about the alleged lack of transparency. in Urban media articles.
In addition, he said he wanted the city to put forward more than one candidate, but Mitten dropped out of the latest city manager poll because he didn’t want to participate in a public forum with multiple candidates, according to Reid.
“Carol Mitten withdrew precisely because she didn’t want to be a part of the public engagement and frankly the reason we’re putting a single candidate out to the public right now and the reason we’re pitching it in a way that I think is doing more harm than good, it’s because the candidate herself, Carol Mitten, wouldn’t participate if there was a public process with multiple candidates,” Reid told his constituents at the 8th district meeting. “Those were her terms, and that sounds problematic.”
As Evanston residents entered the council chambers for city hall, Mitten and Biss could already see the apparent skepticism among residents regarding Mitten’s candidacy for city manager. Several members of the audience in the audience held signs with phrases such as “This glove doesn’t fit”, among others.
But at City Hall, Mitten finally got a chance to address the accusations circulating in Evanston about his commitment to transparency and police accountability.
“I would like to present myself differently than I usually do in a professional setting, as there is a lot of information floating around in Urbana that suggests things about me that are simply not true,” Mitten said in her opening statement. “The individuals who are releasing this information have a clear agenda, and that agenda means more to them than facts.”
One of the specific incidents Mitten addressed involved an opinion by the Illinois Attorney General, who found that Urbana City Council, the mayor and Mitten violated the Open Meetings Act by not allowing residents to criticize specific officials during the commentary portion. public meetings of the Council .
At Evanston City Hall on Thursday night, Mitten said that around that time, in the fall of 2020, public comment was becoming overtly hostile to city staff members. As a result, Mitten and his team decided to ban critical comments about specific employees during public comments to protect employees.
In the end, however, Urbana City Council was sued for that decision, and the state attorney general found that the city had violated the Open Meetings Act.
“We learned a hard lesson, and sometimes I still struggle with how to protect employees and how to create a civilized environment, as it’s their workspace,” Mitten said. “They have the right not to work in a hostile work environment.”
Mitten also addressed questions about Urbana’s handling of an investigation into a police officer’s use of force on a 21-year-old woman named Aleyah Lewis during an altercation that took place in April 2020. Lewis resisted arrest after Urbana officers responded. to the spot where her friend fired a gun, and she was eventually charged with aggravated assault for allegedly punching and kicking a police officer. An investigation conducted by an outside company hired by Urbana concluded that the officers did not violate any policy on the use of force in their interaction with Lewis.
But many Urbana residents were outraged by the lack of discipline by the officers involved, and Mitten told town hall on Thursday that the city had revised its use of force policy and declared a commitment to de-escalation as a result of the police incident with Lewis.
“We had town halls where people could give feedback, and we had several occasions where we discussed using the policy of force with the Council, although this is not a policy that the Council votes on,” Mitten said. “We ended up embracing the 10 shared principles that were presented by the NAACP and Illinois police chiefs around a commitment to more sensitive policing. So a lot of good things came out of the incident, but not everyone was satisfied.”
Later at the meeting, Mitten asked the audience to consider that “there is another side to the story” to her career and background, and she said she wanted to meet with residents to discuss their concerns if given the opportunity. When Biss asked how she would recruit a diverse workforce of city employees, she said the first step is always to build a welcoming and inclusive environment where people really want to work.
Moving forward, Reid will meet directly with Mitten on Friday, July 28, he told residents at the 8th district meeting Thursday night. The Board is expected to discuss Mitten’s candidacy more in the coming days, and Reid said he wants to ensure the Board doesn’t rush into any decisions simply because Evanston has gone so long without a permanent city manager.
“I also support taking the time to make sure we find the right candidate,” Reid said. “I think there’s a sense that the community wants us to make a decision, and they want us to make a decision quickly. I think it represents a certain segment of the community, but I don’t think it represents the wider community.”