Evanston Public Library parking lot, 1714-20 Chicago Ave. RoundTable photo

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On April 24, City Council voted decisively, by a 6-2 vote, to reject the proposed sale of the City-owned parking lot northeast of the main branch library. The proposed sale, to a developer planning an 11-story office tower, failed to win Council support despite having addressed many of the concerns raised by the public to the initial proposal, which included a 14-story tower.

What a difference two weeks can make. Despite the item’s not being on the published agenda for Council’s May 8 meeting, word about it obviously spread, and citizens lined up to address a Council that appeared to have already made up its mind. Several of the speakers referenced a statement by Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey in April, when she encouraged developers to “bring us something brilliant” in voting no on the current proposal.

However, the same concerns sufficient to sway the Council’s vote just two weeks earlier – proximity to the Woman’s Club building and the Frances Willard House – failed to produce the same effect in May.

“I’m concerned that we cut the negotiations off before we should have cut them off,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, who voted against the project in April. “We all want something brilliant,” he added – “a project that brings the entire block together, not something that divides it.”

Ald. Wilson then moved the Council reconsider its April vote, and the motion passed, with Third Ward Aldermen Melissa Wynne joining Ald. Rainey in voting against the project. Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, who voted “no” in April, was absent; Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, who missed the April meeting, voted “yes” on the reconsideration.

Council rules permit reconsideration of votes, but the rules are “a little unclear,” said Ald. Rainey.

Rule 22.1 provides, “Any vote to approve a purchase, contract, bond sale, zoning variation or special use, whether by motion, resolution or ordinance … may be reconsidered at the same meeting at which said vote was taken.” Reconsideration requires “an affirmative vote of 2/3 of the aldermen present.” Any other vote may be reconsidered at the next regular meeting of the Council.

The question posed, then, was whether a vote to permit the City Manager to negotiate a contract is in fact a vote on a contract. If the motion was one to reconsider, it came two weeks too late.

Evanston Council rules and ordinances require a 2/3 vote in order to sell or execute a long-term lease of City owned property. Ordinance 1-17-4-2(A) states any ordinance permitting the sale of property “shall approve the conveyance and direct the appropriate municipal officer to take the steps necessary to transfer title.” Subsection B permits “conveyance by negotiation,” in which case City Council adopts an ordinance by 2/3 vote “directing that the process to sell such property be a negotiated sale and naming the party to negotiate on behalf of the City.”

Ald. Rainey asked whether a vote authorizing the City Manager to sell property – a process necessarily involving a contract – was in fact a vote on a contract. Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar said  it was not.

The vote was for “authorization to enter into a sales contract,” not on the contract itself, Mr. Farrar said, adding, “The motion [to reconsider] can be made tonight.” The sale of property is a two-step process, he said, with step one being the authority to negotiate the contract, step two being approval of the contract. “This is a preparatory step,” he said.

“If I were feeling more feisty, I really would challenge you on that,” said Ald, Rainey. “It’s pretty clear this motion should have been made two weeks ago.”

“It’s not a contract, it’s a negotiation,” said Ald. Wilson.

“It’s very interesting that for something so loosey-goosey we have to have a 2/3 vote,” said Ald. Rainey. “I’m more right than you are on this one.”  She then cautioned Council about the gravity of the vote. “This is a Council that’s going to turn over. This is a new Mayor,” she said, adding that the building plans are well known and public, and everyone knows of them. “We all know that,” she said.

Ald. Wilson protested, saying no one knew what the final plans would look like. He said the process had yet to play out, and the Plan Commission and a future Council could receive something different from the schematics laid out in the April 24 City Council packet.

“OK, so it’s pretty much the thing we will be voting on,” quipped Ald. Rainey. “That comforts me.”

Ald. Wilson then made his motion. “I move we adopt an ordinance to authorize the City Manager” to negotiate a contract to sell the library parking lot. The motion passed 6-2 again, with Alds. Rainey and Wynne again voting “no.”