By Bob Seidenberg
Snapper Poche took his listeners on a verbal ride through his government career, from his stint as Director of Code Enforcement in post-Katrina New Orleans to dealing with blighted properties as head of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.
“It’s a passion for me, and it’s an area of deep interest and something that I’m confident that I’ll continue with throughout the remainder of my career,” Poche said.
John Fournier, the other finalist for Evanston’s City Manager job, shared his city administrator experience in two cities with strong urban makeups: Pittsburgh and now Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he has faced challenges similar to those expected in Evanston.
“It’s odd to say this, but I have known my whole life that I wanted a career in public service, and it’s something that I cherish,” he said.
This was the first chance for the Evanston public to see the two men in action. Mayor Daniel Biss interviewed the two candidates, drawing questions submitted by community members during a virtual community town meeting Tuesday, May 3.
The interviews will be available on the city’s YouTube channel and replayed on Channel 16. The city also added a Zoom link, giving residents an opportunity to comment on the process.
The questions included a variety of standing concerns for the city, such as issues of equity, affordable housing, climate action and the budget.
“We’re very much hoping the community will be deeply engaged,” Biss said to the community, kicking off the session with Poche, “and just sharing your thoughts and your reactions as council gets closer until the moment of making what I think is likely to be a difficult decision between two very impressive people.”
Biss asked both candidates about the lakefront sexual misconduct scandal that rocked the city last year. That situation ultimately led to this search, as then-City Manager Erika Storlie, among others, resigned.
Fournier, Assistant City Administrator in Ann Arbor and for two years the interim Human Resources Director there, said he had read the recommendations in the report commissioned by the city that investigated how officials handled a petition brought by female lifeguards, who alleged sexual misconduct by supervisory staff.
“Every leader in the city hall, really every employee in the city hall, has a duty to report and investigate misconduct,” Fournier said. “So individual employees shouldn’t be investigating but they should be reporting up until issues get the attention they need for human resources, the city’s attorney office to carry out a proper investigation.”
Poche said the city’s response in such cases, “most fundamentally, is focused on culture and a culture of ensuring accountability, really, around values and acknowledgement and frank discussions around how how the workplace should exist, how an organization should treat and respect employees and what that means in practice.”
The candidates were asked about what they would do to advance equity in the Evanston job.
Fournier said in Pittsburgh, where he was the mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff, one program looked at the city’s capital investment history, finding “where those investments have historically been made, and where we have some room to make up and where we need to be, making future investments in a bigger way.”
The work involves “going through department by department and program by program and making sure that … you’re applying that aggressively and updating policies and practices on a regular basis,” he said.
Poche spoke of his work at the city leadership initiative, where one program looked at 10 cities across New York state, and how cities addressed distressed properties.
Over the course of two years, he worked with senior leaders in the housing departments of those cities, he said, “to improve how they’re addressing housing issues, how they’re being more effective, how they’re improving operational elements, and I think specifically, equity considerations around the work that they do.”
He said code enforcement became a key area.
And so my team and I have been working for a long time with senior advisers within the cities to think about how do you operationalize equity, and what does that look like and how does it look like in Rochester? How might that be different in Westchester [County], where it’s not an issue of dilapidated properties, but more an issue of the importance of being able to get inside properties to inspect, to make sure that really overpopulated housing is still kept up the code standards?”
The two candidates also fielded a question about how to handle Evanston’s perennial budget challenges. “Given all these constraints, what would your approach be to the budget?” Biss asked Fournier.
“You know, we have similar issues in Ann Arbor,” Fournier said. “We actually are most years forced to cut our property taxes … which makes our budgets really, really tight. And so we’ve had to get really creative in the city of Ann Arbor to keep our budget moving forward and kind of pull it out of a structural deficit. “
He said he has read some of Evanston’s budget documents. “Obviously there’s a lot more to learn and I hope I get the opportunity to do that.”
Fournier said, “I would look at right-sizing the city’s assets … the vehicle fleet, equipment, things like that, make sure that city’s not overinvesting for its needs.”
He said teleworking has also proved a particularly salient strategy in Ann Arbor during the pandemic. “Municipal governments can continue to deliver excellent services without having all of their employees working full time in the office,” he said. “So there are opportunities there.”
On the budget, Poche said “I think oftentimes cities have their own judgment – spend a lot of time focusing on budget and numbers. And we do not do enough about talking about what the investment of these budget dollars actually mean in real services and delivery.”
He said if he were selected as City Manager here he would be as transparent as possible about city data, including “how do you measure outcomes for individual departments, how do we measure the number of potholes, etc.”
Evanston City Council members will not begin deliberating on a selection until Monday, when they have a scheduled council meeting.
“Which means [those] who are interested in weighing in … have until the weekend to get their thoughts in on the process, Biss said.