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The City Council convened on May 19 to discuss the rift among members of the Plan Commission that led to a walkout by three commissioners at their May 14 meeting.
“This is not the behavior I would expect from a board or commission,” said Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne.
“I think we have a very serious situation,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. If a developer came to her about building in Evanston, she added, “she would caution them.”
The nine-member commission, which currently has one seat vacant, has split over issues of height and density in its discussions of both the draft downtown plan and the 708 Church St. tower proposal.
Recent Plan Commission meetings have been marked by tense exchanges between members, including a request sent to City officials by one commissioner asking that another be removed for alleged inappropriate comments – an act, said Alderman Edmund Moran Jr., 6th Ward, that was “unprecedented” in his years on the Council.
“There is clearly something wrong, relationally, between various members of the Plan Commission,” he said.
The tension snapped on May 14, when commissioners David Galloway, Charles Staley and vice chair Stuart Opdycke walked out, dissolving the quorum necessary to continue the meeting. The walk-out, Mr. Staley told the RoundTable, was the commissioners’ only option to prevent a vote on reducing the height limits in the draft downtown plan from 42 stories to 25 – a move, he said, that was pushed through by the commissioners who favored the height reduction in order to take advantage of their 4-3 majority caused by the absence of Mr. Woods, who has leaned toward higher height restrictions in past meetings.
Commissioner Johanna Nyden, who proposed the motion that led to the walkout, told the RoundTable it was an effort to move the commission forward in its discussions of the draft downtown plan, which they have been working on since last fall. She said she would have made the motion even if Mr. Woods had been present.
Some Council members on Monday thanked the commissioners for what Second Ward Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste said was “apparently a thankless job.” Most aldermen, however, expressed little sympathy for either side.
“You win some and lose some, but you don’t walk out before a vote’s been taken,” Ald. Wynne said.
“To get up and take your ball and go home, it’s ridiculous,” said Alderman Steven Bernstein, 4th Ward.
“From my perspective, I would not be looking for the Plan Commission to take a vote without one member being there, particularly with an issue that is so important to the City,” said Ald. Moran.
“When you have a contentious issue, and when the chair is not there and you force a vote, it’s disrespectful,” said Ninth Ward Alderman Anjana Hansen.
Some aldermen downplayed the impact the final Plan Commission vote would have on the Council’s view of the recommendations put forth by the Commission. “Four-four, four-three, is fine and we’ll take it from there,” said Ald. Wynne.
“You do us a disservice if you believe the vote is what counts,” said Ald. Bernstein. “What we’re concerned about is your advocacy, your feelings. …You follow the standards, you follow the law, leave the politics to us.”
It seems political considerations grew more difficult for the commissioners to ignore, however, with the decision earlier this month by the Planning and Development Committee, which consists of all nine aldermen, to table a vote on the Fountain Square tower project until the finalization of the downtown plan. The contentious height limitations in the draft downtown plan called for at last week’s Plan Commission meeting, if passed by the City Council, would have effectively killed the proposed 38-story tower.
“We have a real unique and controversial project in front of us,” said Ald. Jean-Baptiste.
“Emotions have run so high, and those emotions have impeded the good judgment [the Plan Commission] showed in the past.
“This particular issue, 708 [Church St.], has created some animosity, some mistrust,” he said.
While the aldermen flirted with the idea of disbanding the entire commission, the meeting ended with the Council’s opting to let the commissioners work out their differences.
“If you think you can play nice, then continue to play,” said Ald. Bernstein.
“We have too much talent that’s sitting there to let this go,” said Ald. Wynne.
The decision to retain the commissioners was also due, in part, to what Mayor Lorraine Morton said was a “heck of a problem” convincing qualified volunteers to serve on City boards and commissions – an obstacle, she said, that will grow now that this dispute among plan commissioners has become public.
“I wished I could have discussed it and worked it out before it came to this,” said Mayor Morton, who added she was never informed of the tension between the Plan Commissioners. “I’m very sorry it came to the members of the Council this way.”
Aldermen said that members of the commission should resign if they feel the trust within the group is unsalvageable.
“If you don’t think you can get along,” said Ald. Hansen, “you are a doing a disservice to our community, because no work will get done.”
Commissioner Coleen Burrus and associate commissioner Lawrence Widmayer both told the panel they believe the Plan Commission can resolve its differences.
“I think this is a wake-up call,” Mr. Widmayer told the Council members.
“We have to start pulling together as a City,” said Ald. Bernstein. “This is the most important commission in the City, and it has to do better.”
In what was perhaps a first step toward reconciliation, the Rules Committee of the Plan Commission held a meeting on May 22 to hear citizen input on how to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Plan Commission meetings. Four commissioners discussed with representatives of Evanston citizen groups, as well as concerned individuals, how to improve time management, especially for public comments; how to ensure that meeting agendas are accurate and followed; and to clarify, for all citizens, how the development process works in Evanston. The meeting concluded without incident.
The entire Plan Commission meets again on June 11.