Alderman Peter Braithwaite: “This is a very demanding responsibility. Our meetings probably take up maybe ten percent of our time a week.”

Evanston aldermen spoke of the high demands and the low pay they receive in their jobs, rejecting the recommendation of a Mayoral-appointed committee that called for future Council members to pay on their own for family health care benefits.

At their Rules Committee meeting Aug.3, aldermen went in the opposite direction of the recommendations of their Citizens Compensation Committee, which was established to set compensation guidelines for the City Council to be elected next April.

Compensation Committee members, citing the pandemic and sacrifices City employees were making, recommended zero percentage salary increases for the first two years of the next Council members terms as well as requiring members  to pay for their own family health care services (though still receiving subsidized individual insurance.)

The changes would have resulted in savings of $440,000  over four years for the cash-strapped City, the group estimated.

“This year presents tremendous budget challenges for the City due to the pandemic, and the committee understands this,” the group said. “Sacrifices and belt-tightening will be asked of all city employees, including its leaders, elected officials.”

Committee members cited a survey of 16 suburban northern suburban communities (including Evanston), showing that Evanston elected officials, receive by far the highest compensation with only two of those towns offering health care benefits of any kind.

Aldermen currently receive $15,990 for the position, which is regarded as part time under the Council/Manager form of government, with professional staff running the City on a day-to-day basis. Some of the aldermen hold full time jobs away from their duties with the City.

But aldermen — some of whom are expected to run for re-election to serve on the next City Council — cited the demands of the job and spoke in favor of exploring some kind of stipend for Council members not receiving the family health benefits.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said, though comparisons are made with other cities, “I don’t know other cities have the same type of [situations] that Evanston seems to have.”

She said the aldermanic position is already not attractive to many people because of its low salary.

If family health care were to be removed as a benefit, “I think we’re just essentially limiting the number of people we’ll see apply or run for this position,” she said, suggesting some single parents might fall in that category.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, and others spoke about the rigors of the office.

“This is a very demanding responsibility,” Ald. Braithwaite said. “Our meetings probably take up maybe 10% of our time a week.

“It’s the phone calls, emails, going to the grocery store — wherever we shop or walk in Evanston, we’re on the clock. So, to those who don’t think that this is no more than a half-time job, I’m more than happy to lend you my phone for one day and access to my email, and have at it, just to get an understanding,” he said.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, called for a change for equity reasons. She and Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons were the only two Council members listed as not receiving the family health benefits other Council members are receiving.

To eliminate subsidized family health care altogether, as the Compensation Committee recommended, argued Ald. Rainey, would result in “dragging everybody down to the lowest point, as opposed to giving those of us who are single, who are not taking additional dollars out of the fund [giving] a little more to make us not feel like we’re getting $17,000 less than many of you,” she said to Council members.

Ald. Rue Simmons said the salaries aldermen draw could not really be called compensation.

“ It’s a stipend,” she said, [with] “much of it is passed along to nonprofits in town when we go to their galleries and we give donations and we pay for this and we can’t take coffee and so it is really a stipend.

“That allows us to be able to serve,” she said. “There’s no wealth-building model here; we’re not earning any money. It’s all mostly being shared back into the community.”

She suggested the Council consider at least setting aside funds so aldermen could pay their way for community events. She also pointed the need for stipends in other areas. “You know it’s tough to remember everything, follow up, track what you’re doing,” she said. “We don’t have staff support, like the mayor has staff support. So that would be something I think will be helpful for future aldermen to manage what they’re doing.”

Alderman. Melissa Wynn, 3rd Ward, also supported some kind of stipend for aldermen not receiving family benefits,  placing them on the same compensation level and ensuring that Evanston “doesn’t end up with a city council that looks actually a lot like Oak Park, which is almost all retirees,” she maintained. Capsule summaries of the Oak Park Village Board members on that village’s website indicate a mixed group of ages among those serving.

“It’s really critically important that we continue to have a spectrum of ages and people who have children in our schools,” she said.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, though, warned against aldermen considering themselves too special.

“I guess that we work really hard and we work all the time, and we have a lot of knowledge … and [do] an incredible job of keeping in touch with our constituents …  and doing the right thing and communicating and all of that,” she said. “But I think it’s really important — at least to me it’s important – that I not set myself above those my constituents, or the employees of the City. I don’t want to say to another employee, ‘I expect you to understand all because I’m only making $700 a month [based on hours worked, according to one Council member] therefore, I’m going to be entitled to this, you know, additional compensation.’ I just don’t feel comfortable with that. I feel strongly about the public service aspect of it — that you don’t come into this with the expectation of compensation.”

Aldermen did not make a final decision, asking staff to bring back a new proposal with an amendment that would allow for some sort of stipend.

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.