Members of the newly installed City Council will get the chance to make the call on staff recommended changes to the way ethics complaints are heard. Members of the former Council, meeting on May 10, fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a hold placed on the issue and allow a vote on the matter.  

At the May 10 meeting of the outgoing Council, Alderperson Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, moved to hold over action on a staff recommended proposal to eliminate the current Ethics Board, which is composed of residents.  

The hold held.

Under the current system, the chair of the Board of Ethics presides over the hearings on ethics complaints. The Board then votes on whether there was a violation of the City’s Ethics Code. If appealed, the decision is subject to review by the Council’s Rules Committee.

A staff proposal presented to the City Council last month would replace the Board of Ethics with hearing officers hired and paid for by the City. At the conclusion of the case, the City-hired Hearing Officer would issue a written opinion as to whether the alleged violation was sustained.

Ald. Fleming asked the City’s Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings about turning to a system, such as is in use in Skokie, that would continue to use residents “who are properly trained and who have the best fit in terms of expertise in the area as part of the process.”

She suggested the City could then use its Administrative Adjudication officers to judge cases, “who I assume would be impartial – I mean they are paid, but hopefully they can be impartial, making these final determinations.”

She added, “I just have the same concerns with kind of taking this all away from citizens.”                                                                                  

Alderperson Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, had made the initial referral that staff consider changes in the system. Her referral came after residents brought several cases in front of the Board of Ethics charging various Council members with violations of the City’s Ethics Ordinance.

Ald. Wynne suggested officials consider using a hearing officer versed in legal matters to hear complaints, noting “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.”

She suggested the City consider hiring a hearing officer who “has legal training and has the ability to run the procedures with more professionalism.”

Arguing for the change, Ald. Wynne said, “I think that what’s happened with our Board of Ethics. Over the last four years [it] has really not served anyone.”

She added, “We’ve  had problems getting a quorum, which means that someone who wants to bring an ethics complaint or the person for whom the ethics complaint has been brought – both parties are being denied speedy resolution of that, so that will be eliminated by this ordinance.”

She noted that the City’s administrative law judges (hearing officers are referred to as judges in the quasi-judicial system), “are all lawyers and lawyers have a code of ethics that we all must follow.”

Ald. Wynne also regarded important that administrative law judges are removed from ex-parte communication (communication to only one of the parties to a lawsuit), explaining “occasionally we’ve had this problem with Zoning Board members, or Planning Commission members, or even Preservation Commission members, when they are contacted directly by applicants.

“We’ve tried to have citizens participate in this process,” she said of the current system, “and it has not been successful, and I don’t think it’s been positive for anyone on all sides, including the Board of Ethics members.”

“If I were a member of the public and asked to join our Board of Ethics,” she added, “I wouldn’t, because it has become so politicized.”

Outgoing Mayor Stephen Hagerty said, “If the Council were to move forward tonight on this and pass it, the next Council can take a few years and see how this is working.” If not working, they could amend it at that point, he suggested.

Ald. Fleming, however, opted to “hold” the issue — in effect, leaving it to the next City Council to consider.

Some members of the new Council – Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, and Devon Reid, 8th Ward – are already on record with concerns about removal of citizens from the process.

Alderperson Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, in one of her last official actions as a Council member, moved to overrule Ald. Fleming’s hold – a parliamentary action that would require a two-thirds vote of the Council.

“We have to have an ethics process, what we have does not work,” she said.

The motion fell one short of the six votes needed to overrule the hold.

Voting to overrule were Alderpersons  Wynne and Rainey, as well as Judy Fiske, 1st Ward; Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; and Donald Wilson, 4th Ward.

Voting against the overrule of the hold were Alderpersons Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward; Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward; Eleanor Revelle 7th, Ward; and Fleming.

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.