Anyone who saw or heard about the Dec. 3 meeting of the Rules Committee of the City Council knows it was a travesty of justice and an embarrassment to the community.
A critical item on the agenda was how to address the findings made by the City’s Board of Ethics that Alderman Ann Rainey violated the City’s Code of Ethics by abusing her power and exhibiting a lack of impartiality. (See story on page 8.)
In her zeal to gather support for a group of residents who pledged money to demolish the Harley Clarke mansion, Ald. Rainey urged the group to try to convince another alderman who was scheduled to be in Springfield on business not to return to Evanston for a Council meeting at which demolition of the mansion was on the agenda. She sent an email to an Eighth Ward household, asking them to donate money toward the demolition of the mansion so the supporters of the demolition could say they have financial support from people in each ward. She set up a meeting with the pro-demolition group and urged them to conduct a moveon.org campaign to gather support for the demolition of the mansion.
She refused to recuse herself as one of three judges on the City’s Election Board when it was hearing objections to a referendum to be placed on the ballot that asked for approval to save the mansion. During that meeting, she rose from her seat and approached one of the proponents of saving the mansion and cursed her. After that meeting she again approached the woman, this time in the hallway, and said, “Don’t mess with me.” Taking a few steps toward the elevator, the alderman then turned around, came toward the woman and repeated her threat.
The chair of the Rules Committee, First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske, said Ald. Rainey had “recused” herself from the discussion, indicating that Ald. Rainey recognized she had a conflict of interest and should not participate. Ald. Fiske thus allowed Ald. Rainey’s lawyer, Arthur Newman – himself a former First Ward Alderman – to speak.
A practiced speaker, Mr. Newman gave alderman an “out” by directing Council members’ emotions to the “impartiality” finding by the Board of Ethics, and arguing that aldermen can be biased and can advocate for a position. He ignored that one issue concerning Ald. Rainey’s lack of impartiality that she refused to recuse herself from sitting as a judge on the Election Board, a body that is required to be fair and impartial. Nor did he discuss whether urging people to try to convince an alderman to refrain from attending a City Council meeting went beyond permitted advocacy. And he ignored whether asking one of her constituents to contribute to the demolition of the Harley Clarke mansion so proponents could argue that people in the Eighth Ward supported demolition of the mansion went beyond permitted advocacy.
In addition, Mr. Newman said an alderman does not have to answer emails or return phone calls, and added, quizzically, that an alderman is responsible to “the 8,500 people” who elected him or her, rather than to all the residents of Evanston.
Those ideas resonated with many of the aldermen, who then touted their own “lack of impartiality” when they vote on City matters and their victimhood when they receive nasty emails from or have ugly confrontations with constituents who disagreed with their votes or comments.
But the show did not end there. When it came time to vote on how to treat the Board of Ethics findings, Chair Fiske made a motion to accept and file the Board of Ethics report – essentially putting it in the dead-letter box. Before the vote, City Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup said a vote in favor of the motion amounted to a decision not to censure Ald. Rainey.
Ald. Rainey cast a vote on this matter. Unbelievable. Her vote was the deciding one, ensuring that she would escape censure by her colleagues for violating the City’s Code of Ethics.
No alderman objected to her voting. Mayor Stephen Hagerty, though, questioned whether Ald. Rainey could vote. Ms. Masoncup said Council Rules do not speak to the issue.
We do not find this to be the case. RULE 11.1, provides that Council members should vote “except on any matter which involves a direct pecuniary interest or conflict of interest.” In addition, Section 1-10-4 of the City’s Code of Ethics provides that aldermen should avoid “actual conflicts of interest … as well as conduct that would to a reasonable person create such conflicts of interest.”
Does anyone seriously thing that voting on a motion that ensures that one will not be sanctioned creates or, at a minimum, appears to create a conflict of interest?
To make it clearer, Section 1-10-4(C)(3) (b)(7) of the City’s Code of Ethics, gives an example that states if an alderman has “a personal interest in any legislation pending before City Council, such elected official or employee must … refrain from voting on such legislation.”
If saving oneself from the censure of one’s colleagues does not constitute self-interest, we wonder what does.
Maybe one of the aldermen who voted in favor of letting Ald. Rainey’s behavior go unaddressed will request a rehearing on the matter. Maybe Council members will refresh themselves on conflicts of interest, the appearance of impropriety and the necessity for good, clear governance.
Maybe, maybe we have reached the nadir.
“…Well, maybe next year.”