Where Are Evanston’s Separation of Powers?

Evanston City Council

While our eyes are glued to who Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will be, and the latest on the Robert Mueller-Trump probe, I urge Evanstonians to cast a glance as Evanston acts out the same events on a smaller stage. Particularly as the Mayor is preparing to make his first appointment to the Board of Ethics.

Jump to: Ethics | Zoning Board (West End) | Administrative Adjudication | Public Opinion (Harley Clarke) | Environmental Injustice (2nd Ward) | Clerk Referendum | Public Comment | Lobbying Ordinance

Ethics haven’t really been a priority for the City, at least not as reflected in its management of the Ethics Board. In March 2017, as residents waited in the halls for a scheduled ethics hearing, they were notified that the meeting was cancelled as they didn’t have the minimum members present to conduct it. As was reported later by the Chicago Tribune, the Board hadn’t been fully staffed since 2014. 

Of course, the City doesn’t really need an Ethics Board given the public hasn’t had access to the Inquiry/Complaint form since at least early February, when the Board’s staff contact, Michelle Masoncup, was first notified the Board’s Complaint link was down. Five months later it remains inaccessible.

But what we should really be paying attention to is an acknowledgment made at the June Ethics Board meeting, in relation to that above 2017 complaint, filed by resident Betty Ester. The case centered on a City official presenting and advocating for City grant funding for her private employer, in violation of Evanston’s ethics laws, which prohibit officials from taking actions that would, to a reasonable person, give the appearance of an impropriety, or inference of personal benefit.

In reiterating the decision for that case, the Board disclosed that it’s initial finding had satisfied the above prohibition for an Abuse of Power, but disqualified the violation, “in great part by the insistence of the other alderpeople.” 

 

It was Mueller dropping his investigation because Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Don Jr. said they didn’t think it was really an issue. The Board found that the Respondent’s action satisfied prohibited actions, but when urged by the Respondent’s colleagues, went against the unambiguous wording of the law and their initial verdict. 

That official, by the way, ended up taking home 40 percent of the grant she presented for, funding that was intended for affordable housing and job creation and retention for low- to- moderate residents. None of which was provided in the end, according to the City’s reports to the funding agency.

 

Oversight doesn’t work if those being overseen are also adjudicating when they get to break the law.

Among the plethora of issues this raises, not least of which is that oversight doesn’t work if those being overseen are also adjudicating when they get to break the law; this “insistence” by the aldermen was never provided during the hearing, not even in a closed session. And this factor of reasoning wasn’t provided to the public until more than a year later. The ethics board is the first line of defense against municipal corruption and depletion of the budget we’re now trying to patch together. It’s authorized to make “findings of fact” based on the pleadings, testimony and evidence provided at the public hearing, and apply those facts to the existing ethics laws. The board has the power to subpoena evidence, witnesses, experts and testimony, and when the law is ambiguous, it can issue interpretations. However, it does not have the authority to allow interpretations inconsistent a law’s literal language, and certainly not at the undisclosed insistence of the City officials subject to those laws.

The Board’s susceptibility becomes more fathomable, however, once you know the chain of command—that the board reports directly to City Council via the the Rules Committee. Not to mention that the board is advised by the City’s attorney, who also serves as the primary legal advisor for City officials, and presides over the hearings, interprets the basis of complaints and how they will be considered by the Board, none of which is disclosed to the public or residents bringing a complaint. When not presiding over a hearing directly, the City attorney provides prewritten scripts that Board members then read verbatim. That City attorney is also charged with providing the required procedural information (which is largely withheld from nonCity parties); and gives the ultimate say on FOIA requests (also not disclosed) to be released to residents involved in complaints against City officials. The City attorney is not actually appointed to be a FOIA officer. 


And the City’s subdermal autocracy isn’t confined to the Ethics Board, as has been evident in the Zoning Board’s unlawful refusal to hear from West End residents opposing a utility station in their Open Space district, restricted as neighborhood green space. (Should mention, the Zoning Board of Appeals also reports to City Council). Even the City’s Division of Administrative Adjudication is under the supervision of the City Manager, who also appoints the hearing officers, and retains the authority to modify any bond issued from a Hearing Officer’s order.

To be clear, the City does not have, and has remained opposed to implementing, any independent oversight or impartial adjudication for residents aggrieved by City actions.


The last vestige of power separation that does exist, within the City Clerk’s office, is now also facing elimination. Ald. Rainey, at the June 4 Rules Committee meeting, suggested a referendum to change the Clerk position to one appointed by the City rather than one elected by the public. A particular grievance Rainey cited was that the Clerk wasn’t under another City authority, kvetching that, “nobody can tell the City Clerk what to do.”

Not that the Council isn’t trying. At last Monday’s meeting, as the Clerk announced an initiative to expand opportunity for public comment to those who aren’t able to make the meeting’s unspecified start times, the Council summarily halted the program under some invented conception of unilateral determination on the matter, postponing it for their discretion at the next Rules Committee meeting in August. This was after the Clerk pointed out that he was authorized by both municipal code and state statute to accept these communications addressed to the Council.

The other topic slated for that August Rules meeting is a lobbying disclosure ordinance, for which the Council also only voiced disapproval. After Ald. Wynne invited resident Clare Kelly, who had initiated the agenda item, to step up and provide comment, Ald. Suffredin demanded, “What are you doing at the microphone?” When Kelly asked if she should sit down, Suffredin mockingly instructed her to “Go ahead. Speak your mind. It’s fun.” 

We need to be paying attention. The City of Evanston is effectively zeroing out the prerogative of its citizens and shutting down its checks and balances. And they’re getting bolder—blatantly subverting the law, public opinion (Harley Clarke), environmental justice (2nd Ward), civil rights (5th Ward), fiduciary duty (budget misallocations), transparency, public participation, on and on.

And we’re letting them get away with it.

Editorial by Misty Witenberg

Related Stories

New Evanston lead attorney is also part of Open Meetings Act violation probe by attorney general Chicago Tribune

City Blocks Appeal Challenging Water Pumping Station Evanston Roundtable

Illegal Construction in West End Open Space District Change.org

The Fight to Save Evanston’s Harley Clarke Mansion Chicago Tonight

Plans to bring alternative high school near blocks of single-family homes would ‘marginalize’ the community: Residents Chicago Tribune

Evanston City Council

Leave a Comment