It will probably come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am supporting a “YES” vote on the Harley Clarke referendum. I could go through a whole list of reasons why preservation and reuse of this building is the right thing to do based on sustainability, equity and community. And some might say we have been down the path of reuse at least twice and nothing has happened.
Based on my 30+ years of experience with reuse projects such as these, I would observe that the City of Evanston has done almost nothing, except send out requests for proposals (RFP), that would lead to the reuse of Harley Clarke.
These projects are successful only when local governments show leadership and support for finding solutions. This does not mean the City must spend millions of dollars on a project. Instead, it means supporting local efforts to find viable alternatives, innovative uses, and creative funding and financing. The City has done nothing but set up roadblocks to reuse.
Let’s just look at the City’s last “effort” to find a reuse. It selected the Evanston Lake House & Gardens (ELHG) organization that sought to reuse the building for an environmental education center, among other uses. City staff negotiated a lease with ELHG. City Council rejected the proposed lease due to a number of provisions its own staff had drafted and negotiated. One might wonder, “How could this be? Were they negotiating in bad faith? Did City Council vote not to consider further negotiations because there were other negotiations going on behind the scenes?”
This leads me to the issue I really want to focus on: fairness, transparency, due process – good government. It has become more and more clear to me that Harley Clarke is a symptom of a bigger problem within Evanston government that even I am surprised by. At a recent City Council meeting, Council voted to deny access to Harley Clarke by advocates for reuse in preparation for a Preservation Commission hearing. Fairness? Due process? Transparency?
More troubling is correspondence that has been discovered through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. These documents show threats made by a local philanthropist to a City Council member that appears to tie a vote on Harley Clarke to the philanthropist’s ongoing support for the Robert Crown redevelopment. Other documents reveal that Alderman Ann Rainey has made donations to the unincorporated group that supports demolition of Harley Clarke and has been soliciting donations from others using her City email account.
Did she reveal her conflict prior to voting on the Harley Clarke matter? Has she recused herself from participating in and voting on the matter? If you guessed “no” to both you would be correct. The Evanston Ethics Board agrees that Ald. Rainey’s actions were inappropriate and has found her in violation of the Evanston Ethics Code provisions regarding abuse of power and impartiality. But the FOIA documents reveal a great deal more. (See evanstontruths.com/foia-highlights)
Many of the antics have been going on since 2015, if not longer. They suggest that those promoting demolition worked hard to undermine the efforts to reuse the property, going so far as to indicate that they didn’t put in a proposal during the last RFP process solely so they could lobby Council members (during the proposal process, those who submit a proposal are barred from contacting Council members to discuss the proposal). Taken together, it seems decisions were predetermined, lease negotiations were undertaken in bad faith, and the whole process has been undermined by our own representatives and City staff. This says nothing about the fact that demolition efforts are being funded primarily by five individuals living within a couple thousand feet of Harley Clarke.
I am having a hard enough time dealing with what’s going on with our government in Washington, D.C. To see our local government severely lacking in transparency, fairness, and due process (this is a kind description) is unacceptable, which is why I am writing. I am having trouble believing this is happening only around issues about Harley Clarke. I wonder how it is impacting other decisions such as affordable housing, community development, downtown development, the budget, etc.
I ask you to vote “YES” on the Harley Clarke referendum, if not for Harley Clarke, then to support good government.