Evanston Mayor Stephen Hagerty went on the offensive at his third town hall meeting Nov. 14, elaborating further on the City’s actions in the case against City Clerk Devon Reid and speaking in support of Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite in the ethics complaint that had been lodged against him.
Held at the Temperance Beer Co. on Dempster Street, the event had a more of a roadhouse atmosphere, with the Mayor engaging in several feisty exchanges with local activists who dominated the meeting.
One of them, longtime Evanston resident Michael Vasilko, helped set the tone early, asking the Mayor whether he would have voted along with Council members in their recent approval of a request by Northwestern University on its request to hold more professional and commercial entertainment events at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Residents living in the vicinity of Welsh-Ryan and Ryan Field had lined up solidly against the proposal, citing the parking, litter and traffic congestion issues they are experiencing now on University game days.
During public comment at the Nov. 11 meeting, only two of the nearly 40 speakers supported the zoning request, and both were representatives of the university.
Responding to Mr. Vasilko’s question, the Mayor reminded his audience that when running for office, “I spoke about smart, sensible economic development in Evanston.
“It’s really important to extend the tax base,” he said. “Taxes are really high and we just can’t continue to have taxes go up and up and up, so we need to make sure we have economic activity.”
He pointed to the success of the concert presented by SPACE at Canal Shores Golf Course this summer as an example of a special event which can bring positive benefits, “and I think people want to see this success as well, without burdening neighbors.
“But I’m nervous about that [the impact of Northwestern’s request],” he added, “and I know people who voted against it are.”
Several residents at the town meeting pressed the Mayor about Northwestern’s tax-exempt status and need to step up its contribution to the City beyond the annual $1 million Good Neighbor Fund contribution that NU has been making.
Former Eighth Ward Alderman Norris Larson maintained that that the University has “an unusually lucrative gig,” not having to pay property taxes. He contrasted that arrangement with other tax-exempt institutions such as Saint Francis Hospital, which elected three decades ago to pay taxes on a building that houses private practitioners.
Mayor Hagerty said he believes there is “a start of recognition by the University that they were on a little slippery slope in some of the activities they were doing, and that not all of it is a business enterprise and ‘Maybe we should be paying a tax on that.’”
He said before he sits down with Northwestern officials about their contribution next time [this year’s Good Neighbor Fund contributions were announced four days after the town hall meeting] “there will be a lot of analysis in advance, determining what the University might pay.”
He noted that City negotiated with the University last year to pick up the cost for City police officers used for traffic and crowd control at special events and games.
Longtime resident Tina Paden declared that was not enough.
The University should provide its own police and fire services rather than depending on the City’s, she told the Mayor.
“That way, if we have an emergency, police or fire are not on campus,” she said, but serving the community.
“We come first, not Northwestern,” she declared, to applause.
At the meeting, another resident, Meg Welch, pressed the Mayor on Evanston police arrest of City Clerk Devon Reid at the police station on an outstanding traffic warrant from another town in July at a time when the City was pursuing a censure of the Clerk for harassment against workplace employees.
“I wonder if you could tell us how it transpired that when the Clerk walked into the police station he happened to get arrested,” she asked. She also asked the Mayor whether perhaps someone in his office had tipped off police about the warrant, which was unrelated to the workplace-safety case the City was pursuing.
Ms. Welch said she had received a cell-phone ticket a short time ago. “If I walk into the Evanston Police Department, am I going to get arrested?” she asked, also asking the Mayor “if he felt the significance of what it is like for a young black man to walk into a police station and get arrested for something most of us in this room have done.”
The Mayor said he had no idea how police got involved. At the same time, he advised, “if you get a ticket and have to appear before a judge, you’d better appear before the judge. If you don’t appear before a judge, the judge will issue a warrant for your arrest.”
He turned discussion to defense of the City’s move to make changes to the Clerk’s authority over Freedom of Information requests, suggesting citizens privacy was at issue.
“Here’s the deal,” he said. “If any of us are arrested in this room, we lose our right to privacy,” he explained. “Anybody can FOI [make a Freedom of Information request] for body-worn-camera video and see any of us arrested. But the vast majority of interactions people have with police, no one is arrested these days but you’re captured on body-worn-camera videos.”
Based on legal consultation, the City maintained that if someone is arrested, the only individual who can see that video is his or her attorney, the Mayor explained, “and the Clerk didn’t like that,” he said.
At the meeting, the Mayor responded equally forcefully to a suggestion he is using Council rules to limit citizen speech while protecting aldermen.
Turning the tables, Mr. Hagerty said people were pretty appalled “the other way,” referring to the complaint some citizens filed with the City’s Board of Ethics against Ald. Braithwaite for comments he alderman made at the end of a City Council meeting in July. The Ethics Board eventually found in favor of the alderman.
At the July 15 meeting, Ald. Braithwaite was responding to comments that some citizens made, alleging that the Clerk had been treated in a discriminatory, racist manner.
Responded the Alderman, “I really sit here and have a difficult time when I hear white folks admonishing me and using the word racism like’s it’s some coin [of] phrase that you came up with. Unless you’ve walked in my shoes or any one of us blacks sitting up here [on the dais], I suggest you keep that to yourself.”
“I thought that was free speech on his part,” the Mayor said at the Nov. 14 town hall meeting. “He was speaking from the heart, just like people during public comment are speaking or commenting from the heart. Sometimes that can be very emotional and passionate, and people are raising their voices and all that. And I respect all that…that’s free speech in America and the people we elect should have, in my opinion, the same ability to do so.”