Evanston city manager finalist Carol Mitten says her strength is a sense of ‘the big picture’

Evanston city manager finalist Carol Mitten says her strength is a sense of ‘the big picture’

By Bob Seidenberg 

A lot had been said about City of Urbana administrator Carol Mitten since the City Council announced earlier this month she was their lone finalist to become Evanston’s next city manager.

 In her first meeting with the Evanston public July 28, Mitten had the chance to talk about her record herself.

Consider the things I’ve done’ – not what others claim

She led off by responding to critical portrayal of her role on variety of issues, coming mainly from one Urbana website, she said, that some local activists have seized upon, questioning her compatibility with the city’s values on policing, transparency and racial issues.

“I’d like to introduce myself differently. than I usually do in a professional setting, since there’s a lot of information circulating out of Urbana that suggests things about me that are simply not true,” Mitten said.

“The individuals who are spreading this information have a clear agenda, and that agenda means more to them than facts. Most people in Urbana have recognized this and ignore what they say and what they write. 

“In fact, I was recently confirmed again [as an] Urbana city administrator, and no member of the public spoke against me, at least not on the record, including the people who’ve been providing the information out of Urbana. So if you want to know about me, you can consider the things I’ve actually done – not the things that someone represents to you that I have done. Ask for the whole story and know the reliability of the sources you choose to believe. If you do, I think you’ll find that my values are very much aligned with those of Evanston.”

Evanston’s greater resources are attractive

As city administrator for Urbana for the past four years, she said she was drawn to that city initially because of its progressiveness.

“One of the big handicaps in Urbana, though, is limited resources available to promote forward-thinking ideals,” she said. “We have actively pushed to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in everything we do as resources allow. It’s an unfortunate reality that the pursuit of progressive goals can be time-consuming and expensive. For many communities it is simply beyond their reach, despite everyone’s best efforts. By contrast, Evanston is in the very enviable position of having the vision, commitment, and resources to affect real change.”

Mayor Daniel Biss moderated the town-hall-style meeting held in Council chambers at the Morton Civic Center, asking questions that community members submitted in advance or presented live at the event.

 

The meeting turned rancorous at times, with some audience members breaking into Biss’s questions at different points, demanding that they be able to ask questions directly.

The mayor, on his own, warned Mitten at the start, “There are going to be plenty of tough questions.

“A lot of the people in this room are relatively skeptical. I was guessing that beforehand and through the signs that I see as well,”  he noted about activists toting “No Mitten” signs in the audience. “And plenty of skeptical people have submitted questions.”

Mitten spoke about her entry into public life in the interview.

“When I got out of graduate school I had jobs in three different cities: Detroit, Buffalo and Washington, D.C. Detroit and Buffalo were very familiar to me. I chose D.C. because it was so different,” she said. “At the time I moved to Washington, the majority of the population was Black, around 70%, and [the place was] very urban, which was a big change for me – I grew up in the suburbs – and I loved the diversity. Before getting into local government I worked for 20 years as a commercial real estate appraiser in D.C. and the last 10 as the owner of my own firm with a national reputation appraising historic properties.”

Some early lessons as an activist

“My path into government didn’t start with a  job, though,” Mitten added. “It started with civic activism. I lived in a co-op apartment downtown [D.C.], and our apartment building was surrounded  by office buildings. A developer was proposing a planned development on our block, and I became the spokesperson for  our building. I spent about a year on behalf of my neighbors trying to get the Zoning Commission to enforce changes to the Planned Unit Development that we thought were very reasonable. We ended up losing the Zoning Commission vote, but I learned a lot about the public process through that experience. For example, the developer who was actually represented by a lawyer of mine, implied that there would be a potential loss of business because of my taking up that role. You can imagine that was not a comfortable feeling. And I’ve always strived to ensure that citizens sharing their views, defending their positions, are able to do that freely without fear of consequences.”

Other areas Mitten touched on during the meeting are noted below, having been edited for space and other considerations. The interview in full  can  be viewed on the city’s YouTube channel.

A progressive community a priority 

Subject: Impressions of the Evanston community: What drew her to being attracted to become city manager here?

Response: “It’s becoming increasingly important to me as I progressed through my career in local government, because if you’re going to be in this kind of job, you have to live in the community where you work. And I, I don’t want to live in a community that is not a progressive community. So for me, it goes hand in hand.

“I hear nothing but good things about Evanston. The people here; strangers, have been just so nice. And you know, what I’ve also heard it’s a very intelligent community and people like to get engaged and they like to be involved. And I think that’s great because sometimes there are very important things happening, and there’s no dialogue. And then we’re really left wondering: ‘What does the community want? What does the community think?’ And so to have people that are willing to engage and come out, and, you know, make that contribution to their civic life is really important.

“And I think it’s essential to good decision-making.”

Subject: Use of force by police in Urbana. The April 2020 arrest in of Aleyah Lewis, in which excessive force was alleged.

Response: We hired an outside firm to evaluate it and determine whether, in fact,  the police chief’s conclusion that no policies had been violated [was valid]. They did, and all the material that’s available to the public is posted online. The videos of the incident are posted online. And some members of the public were not satisfied with the results. [The Council] agreed with the police chief that no policies had been violated, but they did make some recommendations. And I would say the most important recommendation that came out of it is that we revise our use-of-force policy, and that we very specifically articulate our commitment to de-escalation. And we have had a long-standing commitment to de-escalation, but it wasn’t articulated in the policy. But it was reflected in the training that  the officers receive. There were people who believed that the police officers should be disciplined. But because they did not violate any policies, there was no discipline that was appropriate.

Subject: Her view of an opinion issued by the Illinois Attorney General’s office that Urbana violated the Open Meetings Act when officials imposed rules allowing the Council’s presiding officer to mute speakers whose speech was determined abusive. The action was later successfully challenged in a lawsuit.

Response: After the April incident, “a lot of members of the community became very engaged in coming to council. And it was a time if you remember, that’s when COVID really started to kick in. And so we had shifted to a Zoom format. And there was a lot of hostility. Things were being said, directed towards individual members of staff that were in the vein of incompetence, lying, corruption, and so forth. And the effect that it was having was [that] staff members were very upset. They were very frightened. And we felt that we had lost the civility of the public space that we create, when we had to take public comment at the council meeting. 

“I was very concerned, because the behaviors that we were seeing – my interpretation of them was that it was an effort to bully our staff and it was really having a detrimental effect on morale. So with the advice of the city attorney, we put these new public input rules in place, and then and then we got sued.

“And then once we had the weigh-in from outside counsel who said that you really can’t restrict speech in that way, then we settled that lawsuit and changed our public input rules. 

“So we learned a hard lesson … and I still struggle sometimes with how to protect staff and how to create an environment that is civil, given that it’s their workspace and they’re entitled to not work in a hostile work environment.”

Town-Gown, the need  for a relationship

Subject Relations between the city and Northwestern University and advancing the cause of getting financial support from  the University.

Response: I think it’s about relationships, honestly, when you boil it down … that there’s a continuity and that should be the same expectation. [In Urbana], it’s kind of a mishmash. If they want to close a street or they want to take on-street parking, we charge them, right, because we don’t lose revenue. If we had a different kind of relationship we might go, ‘Oh, we know you do stuff for us; we  do stuff for you. It all comes out in the wash.’ We don’t need to treat each other like that. We can be more, you know, more like family. That’s not the relationship that we have. So I just think it needs to be driven from the top and it but you have to build you have to build relationships.”

Subject: Advancing the city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan to the next level. The city CARP plan calls for a number of actions to be implemented, reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.

Response: You want to start with, like, ‘What’s the universe?’ How are we going to tackle this? How are we going to manage this? The plan talks about different types of areas where progress can be made … but really [has] no roadmap to get there, or no bank account that is segregated to get there. And so that’s the next step that needs to take place.”

Subject: As a city manager, who does she see as her employer – residents or the City Council? 

Response: I am going to say the residents as represented by the Council, but when people hear ‘Oh, the residents are first,’ they think, ‘I’m a resident, do what I say.’ But it’s all the residents, including the ones that aren’t saying anything.” 

And there has to be a fairness about it. So I’ve tried to instill in staff in Urbana – we give the same level of service to everyone. So if somebody says, ‘I don’t know, I want you to do this,’ it’s like, ‘No. Everybody gets the same.’ Right? We’re not doing something special because you’re yelling at us. What we do is on behalf of all the residents.”

Subject: How will she overcome the skepticism some people have raised over her appointment?

Response: I mean, to the extent people would be willing to sit down and talk to me about what whatever it is that prompted them to oppose me, I’d be happy to. As I tried to frame in my opening remarks, if you’re getting information from certain sources, I personally don’t think it’s reliable. So maybe I have another side of the story which you could listen to, and then, reject it if you choose. But I think – what I’ve learned always is, you know, in so many different realms – there’s another side to the story, even stories I tell. 

Subject: What does she regard as her greatest strength?

Response: I think truly my greatest strength is that I see the big picture. It’s all a system, right? The system in the city fits into a larger system, the state, the country, whatever. And I’m constantly evaluating what’s in front of me in light of that system.

“Everything is about balance. And I think that I’m good at maintaining a sense of the big picture and then articulating the big picture. I think I am especially skilled at motivating staff and building a team, and that’s something that you’re very much in need of right now. And you have a lot of special people here, who work for the city and really feel passionate about living here and working here and doing, you know, really some of the some of the most progressive things that are being done in the country. And they want to do more. And so how to how to create an environment to do that? I think I could do that.”

To view the Town Hall interview in full, go to the City’s YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/VCszq096krk

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