Evanston City Council members approved 8 million in bonds toward construction of a new Robert Crown Community Center despite continuing concern from some citizens about the rising project cost.  Photo by Bob Seidenberg

Evanston City Council members authorized the issuance of $18 million in bonds at their regular April 22 meeting to finance the continuing construction of the new Robert Crown Community Center, overriding an alderman’s attempt to hold over the measure to look at other options.

Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, and Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, voted against the bond issuance at the meeting, which included nearly an hour of additional discussion, after City Clerk Devon Reid informed Council members that an earlier vote on the bond issue was not in accord with their rules.

Going into the meeting, City officials had recommended in favor of the bonds issue, which will be used to finance the construction of a new Robert Crown Community Center currently under construction at Main Street and Dodge Avenue.

 The debt the City will pay for issuance of the bonds will  be paid out from various sources including funds raised by Friends of Robert Crown, the volunteer citizens group spearheading the fund raising, as well as a variety of existing or new revenue sources, including the City tax levy, staff pointed out.

In Council discussion, several aldermen acknowledged receiving citizen concerns about the debt that will be associated with the project.  Beginning in year 2025, City bond payments will total more than $3 million for the project.

Speaking first, Ald. Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, whose ward runs up against the project site, said that while she does not love the idea of the City “living off of credit,” she also recognized the City does not have another huge revenue source aside from bonding to pay for the project.

“So while I don’t love the bonding, I also don’t love that people in south Evanston don’t have access to the same facilities,” she said. “I don’t love we have kids where there is no gym they can access at Robert Crown; they can’t currently access the gym at Robert Crown.”

She said she is also concerned about the people struggling to live in Evanston and acknowledged that the City plays a role in that situation. But the City is only one of many taxing units within Evanston, and one of the smaller ones, she said. In that regard, a bigger conversation on the whole issue is warranted, she said.

Speaking next, Ald. Rue Simmons declared, “I’m going to be very hard and firm on anything that challenges affordability. I do believe there is something between a deteriorating building [the current Crown] and $55 million.”

She asked Council members to consider holding the issue, “so we can discuss what our other options are. We have families – and I don’t need to repeat it,” she said to fellow Council members. “You all get calls about folks that have to leave town. It’s happening every day because they can’t afford to stay here.

“We absolutely need an improved Crown,” she stressed. “We need an expanded affordable child care [part of the project], but we don’t need to add to the expense of living here in Evanston. It’s not fair; it completely contradicts everything we talk about most.”

She also spoke in support of concerns residents have about transparency of finances on the project, and called for the City to share with the public the agreements it has made with donors to the project.

In her request, “I’m just asking to take another week to look at all our options,” she said.

After Ald. Rue Simmons finished speaking, Mayor Stephen Hagerty announced the Council was going to go ahead and take a roll call vote on the bond issue.

As the Mayor directed the Clerk to take the roll on the vote, Ald. Rue Simmons asked to speak.

 “I think we’re in the process of taking the roll,” the Mayor informed her.

Ald. Rue Simmons then proposed that the Council hold over the item for one week for further community involvement.

Declaring there was no second to her motion, Hagerty then directed the City Clerk to call the roll.

Ald. Fleming then broke in to say that she had a question, and indicated she wanted to second Ald. Rue Simmons’ holdover.

Mayor Hagerty asked the City’s Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup for a ruling, maintaining that a call for the question had already been made, and a prelude to a vote on the bond issue.

Ms. Masoncup said that Ald. Rue Simmons had made the motion to hold and that she did not hear a second, which Mayor Hagerty also maintained.

“Consequently, the question is called. You have to take a vote on the call of the question,” she said.

Ald. Fleming said she had been prepared to speak on Ald. Rue Simmons’ holdover, when Ald. Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, jumped in requesting a call for the question.

“I paused,” responded Mayor Hagerty about giving a chance for a second on Ald. Rue Simmons’ holdover.  “We’re just taking a vote now whether to call the question or whether to have a continuing conversation.”

With the call of the question passing on a 5-4 vote, he then directed the City Clerk to take a roll on a motion to approve authorizing the $18 million in bonds for the project. That motion passed 6-3.

Later, as aldermen were entering the call of the wards’ portion of the meeting, City Clerk Reid asked to speak, declaring that Council took its vote incorrectly on the calling for the question. “If we don’t follow our Rules, we potentially put the vote in jeopardy,” he said.

Mr. Reid maintained that under Robert’s Rules of Order, which apply in such cases, with the City’s own rules silent on the matter, the person making the request to call the question must have the floor at the time, and that was not the case with Ald. Donald Wilson, 4th Ward.

He said there also was not a two-thirds majority vote needed to stop debate, and move to the call for the question.

Ms. Masoncup said Mr. Reid was correct on the need for a two-thirds vote, and apologized for her earlier ruling.

Mayor Hagerty asked Ms. Masoncup if the City was incorrect procedurally doing something whether Council members should return to that item.

“You should go back to that item,” Ms. Masoncup responded.

Returning to the issue, a number of aldermen weighed in about the importance of the project and the jeopardy the City would be in if there was a delay on acting on the bond sale, which is scheduled to take place May 16.

City staff also weighed in about the dangers of delay, with City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz summoning Hitesh Desai, the City’s chief financial officer, to return to the meeting to address the matter after he had already left the Civic Center.

City Manager Bobkiewicz noted that the next regular City Council meeting at which the aldermen could deal with the issue was May 13, leaving little time before the May 16 bond sale.

“If the Council decides on May 13 you want to take even more time, I’ve never been down this road before,” he said. “Where we have a $54 million project which we would not have the ability to pay for. And so I’d have to go back to Council and say we probably would need to stop work because we don’t know how we’re going to be able finish paying for it.”

Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, and Mr. Wilson were among the most vocal aldermen about the need to move forward on the bond question.

Ald. Fiske expressed concern about the message a delay would send, “not only to the donors, but to the folks buying our bonds.”

“It doesn’t look like the Council is committed to this project and that is unbelievable for those of us who have sitting up here for so many years, talking about this – working so hard to support a project that is going to serve the whole community in  a way we can all be proud of,” she said.

Ald. Wynne spoke of the City’s efforts to inform residents about the project on its web page. “Many of the people I talk to, they’re only listening to some of the critics on this and they are not taking the time to actually research and find out some of the facts out there,” she said.

Ald.  Wilson stressed that Crown is not the cause of the tax problem which people are talking about, naming the pension deficit the City is paying off as one element.  Rather, the need for a new Crown Center arose because “we are under-serving a large number of people in our community and finally after a long period of time we’re going to get to it.”

With the building significantly built, “we are running all kinds of risks here,” not moving forward, he said.

“How awesome is that going to be for the people in the neighborhood to have unfinished sports fields and a fence up for two or three or five years?” he said. “That is not moving forward.”

“My perception is this kind of chaos is perpetuated by social media,” he said later. “I think it is perpetuated by a small number of people who simply want to stop the project, who simply want to create adversity for our Council.”

But Ald. Suffredin noted that Ald. Rue Simmons only wanted to talk about holding the item for a week, when the Council jumped in and cut off debate.

“Nobody wants to stop this project. This will be the best project in the City of Evanston,” he said. “It’s a generational project, a once-in- a-lifetime opportunity. You look at where it is in the City and what is there now and how important it is for all the residents of Evanston to have a place to go to.

“But Alderman Rue Simmons had a right to ask a question and say let’s hold off for a week,” he told aldermen. Instead “of hearing her out, you jumped in with something procedural and here we are. But the problem was she was disrespected.”

When it was her time to speak, Ald. Rue Simmons said she never intended to stop the project and “I’m looking forward to the families in the Fifth Ward going to Robert Crown.

“The problem that I have here is the same one residents have, being dismissed – decisions being made by the most privileged in our community and not having a voice that is heard. I’m right here on the City Council have been dismissed by my own colleagues. Sometimes I think I’m speaking a different language because it’s not what you want to hear.”

Further, “I absolutely do not want to stop the project. None of them [citizens] want to stop the project. They know how much a disaster that would be.

“I’ve never wanted to stop the project,” she said.

Aldermen voted 6-3 to overrule Ald. Rue Simmons’s motion to delay the vote for a week, and, in the penultimate vote of the night, approved the bond issue 7-2. Alds. Suffredin and Rue Simmons were the two “no” votes. The final vote of the night was to adjourn into executive session.

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.