Board of Ethics members, left to right, LJ Ellul, Elizabeth Gustafson, Karena Bierman and Jennifer Billingsley.                                                                              RoundTable photo

On Oct. 15, the City’s Board of Ethics held a hearing on a complaint filed by Trisha Connolly and Albert Gibbs against Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward. Before the hearing began, 12 people spoke, divided evenly between supporting the complainants and the alderman. After hearing public comments, the Board denied a motion to dismiss filed by Alderman Braithwaite, and then conducted a hearing on the complaint. 

Ultimately, the Board did not find there were any violations of the City’s Code of Ethics.  

Some Background

At a July 15 City Council meeting, Mayor Stephen Hagerty proposed that Council approve a resolution censuring City Clerk Devon Reid. At least 14 community members spoke against the resolution during the public comment section of that meeting, many charging that Clerk Reid was being harassed and treated in a discriminatory, racist manner. Council passed a motion, 5-4, to table the motion to censure Clerk Reid, with Ald. Braithwaite voting to table the motion.

At the end of that meeting, Ald. Braithwaite made the following comments during the Call of the Wards:

“I don’t apologize for whoever’s feelings that I hurt. I really sit here and have a difficult time when I hear white folks admonishing me and using the word racism like it’s some coin phrase that you just came up with. Unless you’ve walked in my shoes or any one of us blacks sitting back here, I suggest you keep that to yourself. You want to have that conversation internally, I’m a big fan of that internal, versus external conversations. Do that.

 “But by no means do you stand in any type of judgment where you can sit there and call us racism. This is an amazing town that I love. We all behind this dais give our time, our energy, and sacrifice time away from our family to serve the community for everyone. Sad, really sad, that this issue has become so racially divisive. Love this town, where my kids are able to grow, have whatever conversations, benefit from the diversity. Crazy as it may seem at times – but it is an amazing town.

“To those who say they want to leave I say, “Go. Pack up and leave.’”

The Ethics Complaint

The complaint alleged that Ald. Braithwaite violated three provisions of the Evanston’s Code of Ethics by making some of the comments quoted above – that he allegedly abused his power, acted impartially and was guilty of intimidation. 

In presenting her case, Ms. Connolly argued, “On July 15, black, brown and white people came to speak against the censure of a black City Clerk. It was during call of the wards at the end of this City Council meeting that Mr. Braithwaite addressed white people on racism.

“His comments from the dais referenced in our complaint did not connect to anything that was said that evening other than residents criticizing our Mayor and City Manager, who are both white, for discriminatory treatment of our Clerk. There was in fact only one instance where any specific alderperson was individually called out, and in that instance it was a black resident referencing a white alderman.”

Ms. Connolly said the complaint “is an effort to address the use of elected power to undermine support of the black community by telling white people to step back when they’re acting in solidarity with black people for black causes in Evanston.

“We believe that Mr.  Braithwaite is attempting to suppress other citizen’s right to speech he doesn’t like, particularly citizens’ speech critical of government action.”

Ms. Connolly later added, “People are going across wards to unite on issues that are hard. There is a struggle, and there are those in elected power who want to hold onto the status quo. That is what we see and why we strongly feel that this is a way of silencing people who want change and that is the resistance.”

Mr. Gibbs, a black man, said, addressing Ald. Braithwaite, “You were insulting people that stood up for me – white people … I say that you need to be checked.”

Ald. Braithwaite’s Defense

Shawn Jones, one of Ald. Braithwaite’s lawyers, said that numerous white people spoke at the July 15 City Council meeting about racial motivations behind the proposed resolution to censure the City Clerk. “They directed it to the entire Council, including the aldermen.” He said some speakers hinted at or spoke openly accused members of City Council of racism.

Mr. Jones said Ald. Braithwaite’s comments were at the end of the meeting, after all decisions had been made, and after all votes had been taken. He said Ald. Braithwaite’s response was do not accuse him of racism unless you’ve walked in his shoes.

Mr. Jones said, “There’s no code of ethics violation here. … We have to be willing to talk about race openly, and we have to do it in a way that occasionally makes us uncomfortable. Every time we’re challenged, we can’t file an ethics charge.”

Juneitha Shambee, a lawyer for Ald. Braithwaite, discussed the legal elements of each of the three alleged offenses, and argued they were not met. She said the complaint was “frivolous,” and that it amounted to bullying and was an attempt to silence Ald. Braithwaite.

Ald. Braithwaite also had a chance to speak. Turning to members of the community who attended the meeting, he said, “If I’m going to apologize, I’m going to apologize for your presence here, the fact that we’re wasting your time.”

He said, “I want to make it really, really clear that my work in what I do in local government is an extension of a ministry and love that I have for this town. And my conviction, and it’s intentional, is for the empowerment of black people. I want to acknowledge all of my white friends that are here who have worked alongside me for decades.”

Ethic Board’s Decision

Jennifer Billingsley, Chair of Ethics Board, opened the Board’s discussion by responding to a remark made by Ald. Braithwaite, which she interpreted as questioning the Board’s impartiality. She said, “You’re sitting here accusing people who are engaged in hard work on behalf of the City in good faith. It is not appreciated.”

Members of the Board then discussed each of the alleged violations of the Ethics Code, and voted on each claim separately.

Board members first considered the claim of intimidation. Karena Bierman said the intimidation claim would fall on the side of a criminal complaint, and she said, “There was no additional evidence that would lead me to believe it would fall firmly within our code.” The Board voted, 4-0, in support of a motion that there is no finding of intimidation by Ald. Braithwaite.

The Board next considered whether there was an abuse of power. The Ethics Code requires a showing that an elected official used the power of his or her office “to engage in any transaction” which to a reasonable person would appear to be in conflict with his or her official duties, or would appear to be for the “private benefit” of the officer.

Ms. Billingsley said Ald. Braithwaite’s comment “does appear to be addressed more to white people than to black people and has been interpreted to discourage comment.” She added, though, that she did not think there was any evidence linking the comment to a transaction or to a private benefit.

Ms. Bierman said she agreed, noting that by the time Ald. Braithwaite made his comment, the time for citizens to speak had already passed and it did not preclude anyone from speaking at the July 15 meeting, and that the vote on the proposed resolution to censure the City Clerk had already been taken. She added that the people who disagree with Ald. Braithwaite’s opinion were not silenced.

She said, “I think I’m speaking a little bit for the other members. Yeah, we’re very disturbed by what was said and we don’t think that was proper in government, but it doesn’t rise to a level of an ethics violation.”

Ms. Bierman added, “I do not think this is a frivolous complaint, but I do not see an abuse of power under these guidelines.”

The last claim was that Ald. Braithwaite was not impartial. The Code of Ethics provides, “Every officer and employee shall perform his/her duties with impartiality and without prejudice or bias for the benefit of all citizens of the City. No officer or employee shall grant or make available to any citizen any consideration, treatment, advantage or favor beyond that which is available to every other citizen.”

Ms. Billingsley said that Ald. Braithwaite’s comments “can be interpreted to not favor white people” but to me that is not enough.

“I find Alderman Braithwaite’s comment offensive but I’m not willing to say it rises to the level of a Code of Ethics violation because I’m looking for more than just a statement on the record. … I think it’s the actions that someone takes in carrying out their duties that matter.”

L.J. Ellul said she was focusing on the language “shall perform his or her duties” with impartiality. She said, in my view, the comments he [Ald. Braithwaite] made were in the performance of his duties, and in my view … he acted without impartiality.”

By a 3-1 vote, the Board decided not to find that Alderman Braithwaite violated the impartiality rule.

Before closing the hearing, Ms. Billingsley said, “I appreciate Ms. Connolly and Mr. Gibbs coming forward, because I actually think this process is a good process for our community to go through. It wasn’t frivolous.”