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An advisory referendum-question asking Evanston voters to weigh in on the fate of the Harley Clarke mansion will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The Evanston Electoral Board, composed of Mayor Stephen Hagerty, City Clerk Devon Reid and Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey, voted 3-0 on Aug. 21 to overrule one objection filed against the referendum question. They voted 2-1 to throw another objection out on a technicality. The Board previously overruled another objection on Aug. 14.
The ballot-question asks, “Shall the City of Evanston protect from demolition and preserve the landmark Harley Clarke buildings and gardens next to lighthouse beach, for use and access as public property, consistent with the Evanston Lakefront Master Plan, at minimal or no cost to Evanston taxpayers?”
The meeting took an unusual turn early on when supporters of Harley Clarke’s preservation introduced two last-minute motions.
The first motion demanded that Ald. Rainey recuse herself from the hearings, because one of the objections was signed by Matt Rodgers, who was Ald. Rainey’s campaign manager in the last election. Additionally, members of the Support Harley Clark (SHC) coalition maintained that emails they had obtained through FOIA requests showed that Ald. Rainey was both rallying support and raising money for the Harley Clark demolition effort.
Ald. Rainey took umbrage with the motion, and said that she had been “blindsided” by the motions, which the Board had received only an hour before. She added that the motion was insulting to her history of public service, and reminded the petitioners that she had voted to overrule an objection heard by the Electoral Board on Aug. 14.
Ald. Rainey is the City’s longest-serving alderperson, automatically making her a member of the Electoral Board; were she to recuse herself, next in line would be Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne.
“The effort to create chaos is becoming more and more of a circus,” said Ald. Rainey.
Attorney John Walsh, who represented SHC in the meeting, said, “We have not taken lightly the decision to file this motion.” That motion was denied.
The second motion called for the dismissal of one objection, since the objector, Thomas Witt, did not include his street address in the body of the actual document, a requirement in State statutes, Mr. Walsh said.
The Board and City attorneys deliberated over whether Mr. Witt’s application document filed with the City Clerk, which did contain the address, would suffice.
All except Ald. Rainey eventually felt it did not. Mayor Hagerty said he was reluctant to throw out the objection on such grounds, but added that the law seemed clear.
After the 2-1 vote, discussion turned to how the objection could have been filed without personnel at the Clerk’s office telling Mr. Witt to include his address.
Clerk Reid emphasized that the staff was not there to give legal advice. Mr. Witt noted, however, that the same statute requiring an address also provides that the Clerk’s office shall enforce such requirements as the number of copies to file.
The third objection, filed by Rosemary O’Neill, Mr. Rodgers, Paula Twilling and David Leitschuh, focused on perceived vagaries in the language of the referendum, and said it would be irrelevant given that the City had already authorized the City Manager to enter into an agreement to demolish the Harley Clarke property.
Mr. Leitschuh said that the objectors’ key concerns stemmed from the unclear and misleading phrasing of the question.
Several SHC supporters spoke during public comments, emphasizing the work the group put in to collect more than 3,300 signatures for the referendum proposal. Activist Clare Kelly stressed the non-binding nature of the proposal.
Activist Lori Keenan said that some people she knew who signed the petition would likely vote “no” on the question; they nevertheless would appreciate the opportunity to weigh in on the issue at the ballot box.
Some confusion broke out early in public comments, however, as Ald. Rainey left the table when SHC’s Allison Harned, who filed the referendum petition, began to speak. Ms. Keenan later told the gathering that Ald. Rainey had confronted and cursed at her in those moments.
Ald. Rainey eventually made the motion to overrule the third objection, clearing the way for the November referendum question. Clerk Reid and Mayor Hagerty supported Ald. Rainey’s motion.
“I know that this is an issue that this community has struggled with for a long, long time,” said Mayor Hagerty.