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The Mayoral-appointed Ethics Board has become the venue in recent years for residents to bring complaints of unethical or inappropriate behavior against City officials.
But some aldermen, reacting to the legal fees the City has incurred defending their cases in front of that body, spoke in favor of a change in the system at the Dec. 7 Rules Committee meeting.
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, with backing from other aldermen, suggested the City consider using a hearing officer to hear ethics cases in the future.
In cases where complaints are found unfounded, citizens could be charged the cost of legal fees, she said, in another suggestion.
Aldermen were reacting to a report from staff that the City incurred more $62,000 in legal fees, providing legal counsel to elected officials in cases before the Ethics Board. Staff asked aldermen whether it is appropriate for the City to reimburse elected officials’ and/or staff’s attorney fees for their defense to Board of Ethics complaints. They also asked for guidance about how the issue should be handled in the future.
Ald. Wynne, an attorney by training, said she supported revisions to the City’s Ethics Ordinance made over a year ago, tightening up some of its provisions.
“ I thought those were excellent changes,” she said.
“But I think the one thing that needs to be addressed is that we have a Board of Ethics that is a group of citizens frequently with no legal training who are put into this sort of political circus frequently, and a hearing officer would provide an arm’s length, well-trained review of this.”
With a trained hearing officer presiding, she argued, “that would create a record so that we would not need to hire outside counsel,” sparing that expense, she said.
On legal fees in general, she said “that’s something I would like to have staff look at because our Board of Ethics has really not been operating in the way that it operated before. I think in some ways it’s been weaponized by people in the community, and I don’t think that would be the case if [complaints] went before a hearing officer who has legal training and has the ability to run the procedures with more professionalism.”
Citing his own experience, Mayor Stephen Hagerty supported Ald. Wynne’s suggestion.
Activist Misty Witenberg and City Clerk Devon Reid had filed an ethics complaint against the Mayor last year, accusing him of acting impartially against Mr. Reid after Mr. Reid attempted to sue the City to gain access to more documents in his role as Evanston’s Freedom of Information Act officer.
“I was fully exonerated of those charges,” Mayor Hagerty noted. “But literally it went on for about a year with multiple hearings. I had to go out and get an attorney to defend me at the City’s expense that cost our taxpayers $8,500.
“I wish I didn’t have to go out and get an attorney,” he said, “but we were in the middle of a pandemic — we have all these other issues that were dealing with, and I needed to take these charges seriously even though I felt strongly they were baseless and the Board concluded that they were baseless.”
He, like Ald. Wynne, spoke about using a hearing officer, referring to the system the City now uses in its Administrative Adjudication for a wide range of parking and ordinance violations.
The quasi-legal system uses hearing officers hired and paid by the City to hear building, parking, and ordinance violation cases, handing down fines in many instances. An examination of the system some years ago showed more than 90% of dispositions were in favor of the City.
Mayor Hagerty said he sees the Administrative Adjudication system as one where if “you think you got a ticket and it was inappropriate, you can contest it and you go before that board.”
He said the system the City could use would provide a higher authority, such as the Council, to hear appeals.
“But I would be interested if our City attorney’s staff and City Manager’s office gave us a framework of what that might look like,” he said.
“I am particularly concerned that the Ethics Board here in Evanston has been politicized and has been weaponized over the last four years,” he said, “and it doesn’t come without an expense to our residents.”
Ald. Wynne also asked staff to look at a system using “cost-shifting, not just in the instance where one elected official brings charges against another, but cost-shifting back toward any individual who brings an ethics claim, if it is found to be unfounded by the Board of Ethics.”
Responding to questions about the proposal, she said it was something she brought forward for the Council to think about.
“I think what we’ve seen over time is that people have filed Board of Ethics violations left and right, almost as harassment,” she said. “I would argue and I think we need to figure out what’s a way that we can actually get back to legitimate ethics concerns and not have it be … sort of this circus. So that’s something that I would like to talk about.”
Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, also referred to his own case, expressing interest in a change to the system. Two residents filed a complaint with the Ethics Board last year, charging some comments he made during the Call of the Wards portion of a City Council meeting violated the City’s Code of Ethics. The Board eventually ruled that the complaints were unfounded.
“I think there was a letter that was issued to those folks who filed it there was no grounds, and I don’t know what legal proofs they used to push it,” he observed about the case, which proceeded anyway.
“I think it would be really responsible for us to find a new way of administering this with less cost to the taxpayer,” he said, “so I’m definitely willing to support, or I should say support looking at the administrative adjudication, just based on my experience these past three years as an alternative option,” Ald. Braithwaite said.
Striking a cautionary note, Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, agreed officials should work to find a way to make the process more functional and less time-consuming.
“That would be appealing to both the prospective complainant and all participants,” he said.
He said, however, any move to fee-shifting should be done “thoughtfully and carefully, and I am a little reluctant, because we don’t want to create a scenario or situation where you are preventing people who do have legitimate things that are being raised …that’s going to keep or prevent people from raising ethics questions.”