By Holly Marihugh
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring, 2019
Only seven people have filled the shoes since 1915. Those who have stepped up to the challenge tend to stay a number of years, and they insure that the motor of the village is running smoothly. Quite a feat given that Winnetka is a slim slice in the large pie of Cook County, known for its questionable government players and politics.
In 1940 the study, “City Manager Government in Winnetka,” highlighted the effective way the village was governed. Commissioned by the Committee on Public Administration of the Social Science Research Council, the study opened with this gem:
“It is a wealthy suburb of Chicago, an integral part of the metropolitan Chicago. It lies within a county notorious for its mismanagement, inefficiency, political corruption, and boss control. Yet Winnetka itself has a well-managed, efficient, honest, and democratically controlled government.”
Point well taken and it’s one that the seven Winnetka village managers have been proud of. Up until 1915, Winnetka was managed in a haphazard way with independent committees and officials, and there wasn’t a central manager of village administration.
“In Winnetka, the community was seeking continual improvement,” says Robert Bahan, current village manager. “They thought that this form [Council-Manager] provided the best organizational structure to achieve effectiveness, continual improvement, efficiencies, and results. The most important part being that they [Village Council members] maintained their policy-making role as elected officials.”
The village manager system unified administration in one role, with the manager reporting to the Village Council. Among the benefits are having continuous management over the years centralized in one person who isn’t subject to results of the ballot box. The village manager can oversee municipal projects that the Council introduces after input from Winnetkans (your voice and vote count). Although Council members move on from election to election, the village manager sees projects through to the finish line.
“The Council-Manager form provides continuity of government as elected officials come and go,” Bahan says. “We’re the institutional memory, the professional knowledge, and the record-keepers. When an issue pops up, we can say, ‘Council, this was addressed five years ago. If you want some background on it, here it is.’”
Villager Manager Herbert Woolhiser arrived in Winnetka in 1917. He thought the post was temporary because the manager whom he was replacing had answered the call of duty to serve in WWI. However, Woolhiser found Winnetka to be so welcoming that he stayed 34 years in the role—the longest term of any village manager.
Woolhiser indeed left his mark on the village: He presided over creating the Winnetka Plan, a comprehensive plan of village development. There also was a move to enlarge the electric and water plants, open a landfill for local refuse, and add several new parks such as the Skokie Playfields (where we see young athletes playing today) and the Beach at Tower Road (still a popular summer recreation spot).
Most of the early Village Managers were trained as engineers. But today’s manager draws from expertise throughout a wide range of areas that make the functioning parts of the village work like a Swiss clock.
“As you are seeking to become a city manager,” Bahan says, “you need to learn about organizational structure, finance, zoning, land use, economic development, communications, civil engineering, infrastructure, police and fire, and all the other stuff that falls in between with big one being finance. Every day is different. It’s a real rich mix of projects and responsibilities.”
In 2015, Winnetka marked 100 years of the Village Management System. For the occasion, the International City/County Management Association recognized the milestone with this declaration:
“The Village of Winnetka is one of 139 known municipalities in Illinois and one of more than 3,670 municipalities nationwide that operate under the Council-Manager form, which serves thousands of Illinois residents by improving and enhancing the quality of life in their communities.”
 David G. Monroe & Harry O’Neal Wilson, City Manager Government in Winnetka (Illinois), (Chicago: Public Administration Service, 1940). 1