Evanston aldermen will turn to a subcommittee – composed primarily of their colleagues – to review the City’s Code of Ethics, including the City Council relating to Council members voting on items in which they have a vested interest.

At the Jan. 22 Rules Committee meeting,  aldermen approved  a proposal by Committee chair Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, calling for the appointment of an ad hoc committee to review the city’s Code of Ethics, related sections of the City Council rules and the administration of the Board of Ethics.

Four aldermen – Ald. Fiske; Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Don Wilson, 4th Ward; and Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward; as well as one non-council member, Mark Sheldon, a former chair of the Board of Ethics – will serve on the subcommittee.

Ald. Fiske as well  as other Council members noted the need for a review  of the City’s Ethics Ordinance at a turbulent Dec. 3 Rules  Committee meeting, where the committee considered a Board of Ethics advisory opinion that Ald. Ann Rainey be censured in connection with actions on the Harley Clarke Mansion.

Rules Committee members ended up voting 5-4 to place on file the advisory opinions and not censure Ald. Rainey who, while not participating in the discussion, cast a vote on the side of the majority, essentially shielding herself from censure.

In calling for the committee, Ald. Fiske spoke of “confusing” aspects of the City’s current Ethics Code figuring in the Rules Committee action on the issue.

At the Jan. 22 meeting, she said the time had arrived for a “substantive” review of the ordinance.

Other Rules Committee members spoke in support. “[It’s] something we need to do,” Ald. Wilson said.

“Clearly, I think the Ethics Board was put in a situation that was not fair to them,” he said.  “I don’t know how old the ordinance is… it’s just something that doesn’t work.  So we need to do something to revisit this, rewrite it and bring it up to current standards.”

Ald. Wilson said similar committees have been effective on other issues.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, echoed a similar view, speaking to the need for a thorough review  and revision of  the ordinance.

A committee “is a much better format for working on all these issues and figuring out what the current standards are elsewhere and how that would work in Evanston,” she said.

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7rd Ward, expressed the wish that Board of Ethics members be included in the discussion.

In a memo to the committee, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz and Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup presented a preliminary list of issues to be considered by the ad hoc committee.

They included City Council provisions related to the Mayor or aldermen voting on ethics code violations, noting that, “given the procedural review of ethics decisions, aldermen may at times as sitting members of the Rules Committee be presented with ethics violations where they are the subject of said allegation.

“Currently, City Council rules state that an alderman may abstain from voting where conflicts of interest arise,” the memo said.  “This begs a larger question that staff seeks direction from the  City Council. Should City Council rules be revised to mandate that an elected official must abstain from voting where  an ethics violation  is made towards said elected official.”

At the Dec. 3 Rules Committee meeting, Mayor Stephen Hagerty asked Ms. Masoncup if Council members are prohibited from voting on an ethics complaint against one of them, under current rules.

Ms. Masoncup answered affirmatively. “The Council rules do not speak to this issue. It is silent,”  she said.

The City’s Code of Ethics, however, does speak expressly to this issue. It applies to “any officer or employee of the City, whether elected or appointed.” (Section 1-10-4 (C)(3)(b)(7) provides in part:“(7) Personal Interest In Legislation. If any elected official or employee or a member of his/her family shall have a personal interest in any legislation pending before City Council, such elected official or employee must publicly disclose such interest on record and refrain from voting on such legislation.”

Responded Mayor Hagerty, according to the video of the Dec. 3 meeting, “If we look at the Ethics Rules, we ought to look at this one also.”

In another part of the discussion, Ms. Masoncup said the prohibition “doesn’t have a mandate” under the current Council rules.

The  memo also presented other issues which  arose from the Ethics Board and Rules Committee hearings, to be considered, including use of profanity during public meetings, City payment of  legal fees for  the Mayor or Aldermen appearing before the Ethics Board; and Board of Ethics staffing and the retention of outside counsel.

At the December Rules Committee meeting, Ald. Suffredin raised the question about the legal fees.

“If the only punishment that is going to come out of is admonishment, why did the taxpayers of Evanston pay for outside counsel?” he asked staff.

In the memo to the Rules Committee, officials pointed out that historically the City has paid for legal fees associated with the representation of elected officials before the Board of Ethics. “Under Illinois statute, municipalities have a duty to defend employees …based on an injury allegedly arising out of an act or omission occurring within  the scope of his employment…” staff said, quoting the statute.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.