Alderpersons to Discuss Ethics Board Controversies

Tonight the Evanston City Council will take on the panoply of issues regarding the City’s Board of Ethics and its three Ethics cases this year. Those cases under review were filed by Misty Witenberg (BOE 001), Nancy Sreenan (BOE 002) and jointly by Lori Keenan and Clare Kelley (BOE 003).

Here’s a highlight of those topics for tonight’s Rules Committee meeting:

Alderpersons acting as own Oversight

BOE Cases 002 & 003 At the December’s Rules Committee meeting, Ald. Rainey cast the deciding vote not to be censured (publicly admonished) by her fellow alderpersons for the Board of Ethics finding of Ethics violations against her. Violations included abuse of power and impartiality.

BOE Cases 001 One agenda item later, the Council voted to deny a case implicating the Council itself for violations of HUD’s Conflict of Interest laws. The regulations prohibit City officials from receiving financial interest or other benefits from its federal funding. In January, the Council voted to approve HUD funding, 70 percent of which was paid to a fellow alderperson.

Tonight’s Consideration Should Council Rules be amended to mandate abstention for alderpersons with a conflict of interest?

(The current Ethics Code prohibits elected officials from voting on legislation in which they have a personal interest, and requires all City officials and staff to take all necessary steps that would appear to be in conflict with their official duties.)

City-Funded Attorneys for Council Members

Historically, the City has used tax-payer funds to provide legal representation to alderpersons who are party to an ethics case. Neither representation, nor legal advice, is provided to residents.

BOE Cases 002 & 003 The City paid Ald. Rainey’s legal fees for her attorney, former Ald. Art Newman. Resident’s legal fees were not reimbursed.

BOE Cases 001 Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup, who serves as the primary legal advisory to Elected Officials, advised both Ald. Robin Simmons and the Ethics Board in the Witenberg case. Following Masoncup’s departure from the Board, Ald. Simmons was represented by appointed City official Shawn Jones. It is not clear if the City also provided payment to Mr. Jones.Tonight’s Consideration Should the City continue to pay for legal fees associated with the representation of elected officials before the Board of Ethics?

Impartial Legal Advisor to Ethics Board

The City has previously used its municipal attorneys to act as staff liaison to the Board of Ethics, providing administrative support and procedural guidance. However, in at least the Witenberg case, the municipal attorney also acted in part as the hearing officer, performing duties only authorized to Board members, and independently drafted the findings before the hearings took place.

City attorney Masoncup provided two memos to the BOE, drafting the opinions approved in November and December by the Rules Committee. Masoncup’s attorney stated the second memo was dated May 22, 2018.

Tonight’s Consideration Should the City retain an impartial third party to provide legal advice for future BOE hearings?

City Review

The Council will also consider use of profanity by residents and Council members during meetings, whether it should establish separate codes of ethics for elected officials and City staff, and if the City should create its own lobbying ordinance.

Ald. Judy Fiske has recommended an ad hoc committee, comprised of herself, Alds Braithwaite, Wilson, Suffredin, and former BOE chair Mark Sheldon, to review the Ethics Code, Council Rules and administration of the Ethics Board. The meeting will take place this evening at 6 pm in the Council Chambers.

Witenberg is a contributor to Evanston Leads, and provided documents cited here.