The last 20 or so minutes of the July 23 City Council meeting were memorable and shameful, but most of all, telling.
The apparent controversy was over which alleys might qualify for a competitive grant for storm-water management from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The grant is designed to create “green” alleys by using permeable pavers to line unpaved alleys – of which there are many in Cook County and more than 20 in Evanston.
City staff selected two alleys in the Eighth Ward to use in their grant application, asking MWRD to fund $300,000 of the $500,000 cost. Public Works Agency Director Dave Stoneback said staff selected these alleys in part because they believed that one criterion was that the alleys be in a low-income area.
Sixth Ward Alderman Thomas Suffredin clarified the criterion with MWRD and learned that “low-income” referred to entire communities, not to sections or neighborhoods within a community. All unpaved alleys in Evanston are thus on equal footing under the criteria for this grant.
Mr. Stoneback said members of his staff had attended a workshop and heard “low-income” area and had taken that to refer to areas of a city, not the municipality as a whole. None of the staff followed up to clarify this, even though the plan was to apply for a grant using MWRD criteria.
Ald. Suffredin suggested paving two shorter alleys this year, since the City appears to be in a budget crisis. Doing that would have saved the taxpayers $90,000, he said, adding that all aldermen are to be responsible stewards.
At the Administration and Public Works Committee meeting, Mr. Stoneback had no information about other unpaved alleys in Evanston, since staff had settled on these two. Five hours later, when the matter came before City Council, he had information about the length of each unpaved alley in each ward.
Ald. Suffredin’s suggestion shook up and woke up the aldermen from their post-midnight torpor. Alderman Ann Rainey asked her colleagues to defeat his motion and give her “my alleys.” She accused Ald. Suffredin of having a bias against Eighth Ward projects and voting against them. She goaded him a few more times, and he took the bait, responding with coarse language the City has now bleeped out from its video.
Ald. Rainey, who is known for her sharp tongue and who earlier in the evening had denigrated the chair of the Preservation Commission, asked that Ald. Suffredin be censured and that he be asked to leave Council Chambers. Ald. Suffredin stood his ground and reiterated that he was seeking a way to save taxpayers $90,000.
Though some aldermen appeared shocked by the outbursts, none seemed to wish to exacerbate the matter by pursuing censure. There was little support for his motion.
On a motion by Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, Ald. Rainey got one of her alleys, and the other green alley will be in the Ninth Ward. Rather than a savings of $90,000, the City will save about half that amount – $42,000 – if it gets the grant.
By email, Ald. Suffredin wrote, “While I regret my use of profanity, I stand behind what I said. Alderman Rainey treats public money as if it were her own to spend as she pleases. City staff and some of my colleagues may be willing to indulge this behavior. I am not.”
Nothing good happens after midnight, Ald. Suffredin said in the midst of the tirades. We disagree. Events such as these show the inner workings of Council, City and individual aldermen.
Several thoughts arise: City staff should be more thorough in understanding criteria for grants for which they plan to apply. Alderman should be less partisan in their voting and should give more than lip service to what is best for all the citizens of Evanston.