A post-budget edginess tinged with relief that was almost tangible stood behind most discussions at the March 8 City Council meeting. The items discussed consisted largely of preliminary matters and discussions, but nonetheless controversy and argument erupted in unexpected places, as the meeting stretched farther into the night than any non-budget meeting this year. Items discussed included such broad-ranging topics as ZBA transcripts, safety and the handling of real estate transfer tax stamps.

The Council meeting began with an ominous announcement from Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl that Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is suggesting a $300 million cut in money going to Illinois cities, a proposal that would cost the City $1.6 million. “We cannot sustain a cut of that size,” she said. She went on to praise Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, calling his protest of the proposed cut “wonderful.”

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz then called upon staff to address the goal of “safety,” one of 12 goals Council selected last year for attention this year. Leaving the youth safety portion for another meeting, Council received a report from City Engineer Paul Schneider and Senior Traffic Engineer Rajeev Dahal about pedestrian safety and crosswalks. Residents can expect more, wider and brighter crosswalks in the future.

Police Chief Richard Eddington followed with an update concerning traffic citations police have been issuing. Though a detailed discussion of youth was put off, Mayor Tisdahl took the opportunity to press the Chief and Council to develop “something for teens to do on the weekend in the evening.” She added, “I have faith in [Eighth Ward] Alderman [Ann] Rainey and [Ninth Ward] Alderman Coleen Burrus getting a bowling alley into town.”

When Council turned to the business of running the City, it found such items as Green Bay Road landscaping, granular materials for the water department and tire remounting for large City vehicles. Controversy soon followed.

Real estate transactions require that transfer stamps be sold by the City, then filed in downtown Chicago. As a courtesy to property owners and sellers and real estate attorneys, the City has been contracting with an attorney in the Loop to issue transfer stamps, saving people a trip to Evanston to buy and pick up the stamps. The lawyer providing this service recently retired, sending City Clerk Rodney Greene scrambling to find a replacement. Because Skokie used the same retiring attorney as did Evanston, Mr. Greene turned there first.

Skokie’s recommendation, Robert L. Canel, became Mr. Greene’s, and that of City Attorney Grant Farrar after Mr. Greene introduced the name. After considerable debate, City Council agreed 8-1, with Ald. Burrus voting “no.” The debate swirled around several issues – first, Ald Rainey questioned whether Mr. Canel could work for the City while being a full-time employee of another company, Stewart Title. Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, agreed. (Mr. Canel did not attend the meeting to answer questions.) Assistant City Manager Martin Lyons pointed out that the goal in hiring someone so quickly was “not to hold anything [real estate closings] up.”

“I don’t want top delay anybody’s closing, but I do have a problem with how this guy was chosen,” responded Ald. Rainey. With Mr. Lyon’s assurance that the contract had a 90-day trial period, and with a provision added at Ald. Rainey’s request that requires City staff to report to Council in 60 days with a status update, the measure passed out of the Administration and Public Works Committee 4-1.

At Council, Ald. Burrus voiced her concerns, saying, “Normally, we look at a variety of people, and have a bidding process.” In this case, the City considered only one person, and that person works full-time for another company, she said. Nor, she said, was any information about the individual provided, and Council was told that he is related to someone who works for the City [Council was told that Mr. Canel’s wife works for the City]. Her concerns failed to sway any other aldermen.

Controversy erupted anew when attorney and former alderman Arthur Newman presented a petition for the waiver of transcript fees incurred by his client in their effort to overturn the Zoning Administrator’s decision regarding the change in vendor and service hours at Northwestern’s Great Hall. A City ordinance requires the preparation of a transcript of hearings before the Zoning Board of Appeals; because of the number of witnesses brought forth by Northwestern, the transcript of the ZBA hearing regarding the Great Hall may ultimately cost more than $5,000, Mr. Newman said.

Mr. Newman also said his clients said they had received no notice of the requirement to pay transcript preparation fees, but Zoning Administrator Bill Dunkley said that he provided them with a sheet listing fees, the same sheet he provided Council and he provides all applicants or appellants. Council seemed to focus more on the concept behind charging the fees, however, and directed City staff to review the ordinance. At the same time, over the objections of Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, who called the request for a waiver and review of the ordinance akin to “closing the barn door after the horse has left,” they granted a waiver to Mr. Newman’s clients. All those who paid transcript fees in the past, in good faith and according to City requirements, apparently are out of luck.

A request to extend the expiration date of the planned development at 959 Dobson caused a mini firestorm when Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “I hesitate to go three years out.” He added that, as a policy matter, “I don’t think we should be looking at extended periods – three, four or five years out.”

Ald. Rainey erupted. “You know, Ald. Wilson, this is in my ward. … You don’t know anything about this project, and I really resent you popping off here without calling me first.” She accused Ald. Wilson of “attacking” the project and violating Council etiquette by not calling her. After Chair Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, stepped in, and Ald. Wilson accepted Ald. Rainey’s explanation, the measure passed out of the Planning and Development Committee by 5-0 and passed Council on the consent agenda.

Other preliminary matters discussed that should be on the radar for coming meetings: consolidating City Boards and Commissions such as the Arts Council and the Public Arts Committee, adjustments to the anti-idling ordinance extending its application to driveways and other private property, and a resolution regarding the use of green pest control by the City. The RoundTable will continue to follow these developing stories.