On May 22, the City’s Board of Ethics will hear a complaint filed against the Fifth Ward Alderman by one of her competitors in the 2017 election.
Misty Witenberg, one of the field of five who ran for Fifth Ward Alderman last year, filed a 177-page complaint against Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, alleging that Ms. Simmons had acted improperly both before the election and after she became alderman, in May of 2017. The bulk of Ms. Witenberg’s complaint deals with Ms. Simmons’s – and later Ald. Simmons’s – dealings with Sunshine Enterprises.
At their meeting on March 20, Board of Ethics members heard testimony from Ms. Witenberg, Ald. Rue Simmons and Joel Hamernick, CEO of Sunshine Enterprises.
Ms. Witenberg summarized her complaint, saying she believed Ms. Simmons, as a member of a City committee and later as alderman, had violated the City’s ethics code by “using her public office for private gain,” which increased her appearance of conflict, and by “abusing her power for private benefit.” As an example, she said Ald. Simmons, who oversees the Sunshine Enterprises activities in Evanston, is able to use City property – such as the Civic Center and Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center – at no charge to conduct Sunshine’s business classes.
Ms. Witenberg’s complaint also alleges that Sunshine Ministries, of which Sunshine Enterprises is an offshoot, has an evangelical Christian mission, which violates the doctrine of the separation of church and state. The complaint alleges that Sunshine Ministry’s mission reflects impermissibly on Sunshine Enterprises and therefore on Ald. Simmons.
In October of 2015, Ms. Rue Simmons, as a member of the City’s Minority-Women-Owned and Evanston-Based Committee, made a presentation to the City’s Economic Development Committee on behalf of Sunshine Enterprises.
In December of 2015 the City Council approved a grant of $150,000 to Sunshine Enterprises – to be given in two separate payments – to offer classes to small-business owners and startup entrepreneurs. Two months later, in January of 2016, Sunshine Enterprises hired Ms. Simmons to oversee its classes in Evanston.
The minutes of the Nov. 16, 2016, Economic Development Committee meeting reflect that the committee members unanimously decided,11-0, to recommend that City Council award a grant of $75,000 to Sunshine Enterprises. The minutes reflect that Ms. Rue Simmons was not a member of that committee.
On Jan. 9, 2017, City Council awarded $75,000 to Sunshine Enterprises. Ms. Rue Simmons was not a member of City Council at that time.
Ald. Rue Simmons said her involvement with Sunshine Enterprises predates her election to the position of alderman and that, after becoming an alderman, she had recused herself from committee and Council votes regarding Sunshine. She also said that since Sunshine is a not-for-profit organization, the company can use City property free of charge.
“I am transparent about my involvement with Sunshine,” Ald. Rue Simmons said, adding, “My employer has not had a grant since I was elected and is not pursuing a grant from the City.”
Mr. Hamernick said the charges in Ms. Witenberg’s complaint “include many mischaracterizations.” The “innuendoes of discrimination,” he said are “patently false. …Robin Rue Simmons demonstrates ethics and integrity, and it has been an honor to work with her.”
Mr. Hamernick also said Sunshine Enterprises does not intend to request additional funding from the City of Evanston.
After deliberating in closed session about whether they had jurisdiction to hear any of the claims, the Board announced that it would hear the matter of a conflict of interest in the 2017 grant funding to Sunshine Enterprises.
Scheduling complications made the May 22 date the earliest a quorum of the Board could be convened.