Part of the overflow and "boisterous" crowd at the June 30 meeting on the Cook County minimum wage. Photo by Heidi Randhava

Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

In a hastily called “emergency” meeting of City Council on June 30, the City of Evanston “opted in” to the Cook County ordinance increasing the minimum wage to $10 an hour effective July 1 and adopting mandatory paid sick leave. Under its power as a home-rule community, Evanston could have opted out of the legislation and retained the statewide minimum wage. By taking no action on June 30, the City effectively opted in.

The “Emergency” Meeting

Hundreds of residents descended upon Council chambers, many of them openly angry that the meeting had been called at all. Many questioned the legality of the meeting – the Illinois Open Meetings Act requires at least 48 hours’ notice for a special meeting, and the required notice was not given. When the RoundTable pointed out the lack of proper notice, the City designated the meeting as an “emergency” meeting.

 “Surely this wasn’t an emergency,” said one resident. “It has the appearance of getting it in under the wire and without a lot of public notice.”

The agenda for the emergency meeting said it was called so that Council could consider adopting  Ordinance 66-0-17 which provided that the City would temporarily opt out of Cook County’s ordinance increasing minimum wages.  By its terms the opt-out would have been from July 1 through July 10 to provide time for Council to consider the issue more fully at a meeting on July 10. The agenda said Mayor Hagerty recommended Ordinance 66-0-17. 

In a memo declaring the emergency, Mayor Hagerty  referred to Wilmette’s decision, Oak Park’s planned meeting to consider opting out, and stated that “Skokie announced its intention to opt out of the Cook County Ordinance.” An attachment to Wilmette’s meeting packet listed 81 home rule communities who opted out.

The Mayor’s  memo went on to say he “believes strongly that all workers should receive a fair wage and benefits for their work and I support the concepts of the Cook County Ordinance” but he felt that since other communities had opted out, those actions “may now endanger the businesses of Evanston by providing unequal working conditions in villages that directly compete with Evanston businesses” and “the potential economic impact of these inequalities presents a fiscal danger to Evanston’s businesses and the City of Evanston’s future tax revenues.”

Mayor Hagerty addressed the boisterous and engaged crowd before the meeting began. He read from a prepared statement, saying, “In light of several of our neighboring and sometimes competing communities opting out … I felt it incumbent upon my responsibilities as Mayor to offer up to our own community and Council an opportunity to directly discuss and address this important time sensitive matter.” He called the process “open, transparent, and honest government.”

 “To ensure that everyone very clearly understands my personal position … It’s simple, and that which I have reinforced since I initiated my campaign. I will reinforce it again right now. I currently support the implementation of the Cook County ordinance,” said the Mayor, and cheers erupted in Chambers.

 He then addressed concerns over calling an emergency meeting and proposing an ordinance opting out until July 11. “Many have unfortunately and mistakenly taken my call for an open and transparent dialogue on this issue as a modification of my position. That could not be further from the truth….,” he said.

Members of the public spoke for more than an hour at the meeting, the vast majority opposed an opt-out.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Linda Larkin, one of the few who expressed discomfort with the County ordinance said, “Most of our Chamber members are already paying above the minimum wage, and some are having to lay off people and cut benefits.”

City Council Comments

After the announcement of the special (later, emergency) meeting, social media, email, and phone lines buzzed with often angry calls, a fact mentioned by a number of aldermen. Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, started the discussion by trying to head off some of the anger and spirited passion in the crowd. “It was always my intention to allow the Cook County ordinance to take effect,” he said. The community did not fully understand what was happening, with many asking why the Council had not affirmatively opted in.” Ald. Wilson said for that reason, the emergency meeting made sense. It allowed Council to explain that opting in was automatic – a home rule community had to affirmatively opt out, and by doing nothing Evanston automatically opted in.

The Mayor and each alderman said they had heard the residents’ voices and called for the community to pull together to try to address the problem of low wages, on the one hand, and business viability, on the other.

 “The emergency meeting was not an attempt to sneak something by,” Ald. Wilson said to boos and hisses from portions of the crowd.

 Ald. Wilson then addressed the tenor and tone on social media platforms. “People have said hateful things. The easiest tool we have as a governing body” is open City Council meetings, “I can’t do my job on Facebook.” He said he remained willing to listen to everyone.

 Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, took issue with the emergency meeting. “I have mixed feelings about this meeting,” she said, adding, “it should have been cancelled. “People should be working and earning instead of coming to a meeting” on a Friday morning during normal working hours, adding, “I just don’t understand how lately we force people to advocate” for everything. She called the process tiring, referencing the Harley Clarke debate. “Let’s get on with it. Let’s go back to work,” she said.

She also referenced the tone of emails and social media posts. “It’s shocking that people wrote to me and said, ‘How dare you not support the minimum wage!’ Me? My mother was a union steward.”

 All of the aldermen spoke in support of opting in, though some called on the crowd to take their activism further by pointing out the possible ramifications of higher minimum wage and mandatory paid sick leave. “Retail is suffering, and it’s suffering because of the Internet,” said Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward. People often shop in local stores with the expert assistance of shopkeepers, then leave and buy what they saw online, she said, She challenged Evanston to do better.

 If the minimum wage is to work here, she said, “You must buy locally and not off the Internet … If you can buy it in Evanston, you must buy it here so that businesses who are now paying the [higher] minimum wage continue to stay open. If you have to pay a little bit more to buy it in Evanston, you must make the sacrifice. This is what we have to do… take this great activism and turn it out into the community.”

 Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, also encouraged residents to shop locally. “With this increase we will have to support our local businesses, and some of us will have to change our behavior,” he said.  He warned residents that higher prices for some products and services might result. “Hopefully, this will not result in cutting employees,” he added. He also said his Minority, Women and Evanston Based Enterprises Committee is looking for more ways to keep dollars in Evanston, “tying to increase recycling of our local dollars.”

 “I work in perception. That’s what rules people,” said Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward. “Even with us opting in, there are some things we need to work on in Evanston.” She then challenged the crowd to participate in the process early, to come to Council meetings and advocate, mentioning the budget process specifically. “Please do not email me after the budget has passed.”

 Representative Jan Schakowsky and Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin addressed Council, praising the City for its decision to opt in, even as an island among communities who chose to opt out.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who introduced the ordinance to the County Board, said, “We are not subject to the whims of neighboring communities.”

Congresswoman Schakowsky said she was especially proud of the people of Evanston who attended the meeting. “It sends an important message that the community wants to be and is engaged.”

Evanston resident Rosemary Nielsen said, “I am doing one little thing. I chose not to join Amazon Prime and am taking that $100 to support local businesses.”

The Mayor and each alderman said they had heard the residents’ voices and called for the community to pull together to try to address the problem of low wages, on the one hand, and business viability, on the other.

Council “cancelled” the agenda, so no vote was taken on proposed Ordinance 66-0-17. 

After Evanston City Council’s July 1 meeting, neither Oak Park nor Skokie opted out of the County’s minimum wage ordinance.

 The minimum wage in Evanston is now $10 per hour, and will increase to $13 per hour by 2020.

Chicago’s minimum wage increased to $11 per hour on July 1. It will increase to $13 in 2019 and subsequently will increase by an increment tied to the consumer price index.  

Heidi Randhava

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.