A citizens board with the authority to decide on ethics cases would be the system most in line with best practices used to investigate ethics complaints, the longtime head of the Chicago Board of Ethics told an Evanston committee last week.

Invited to speak at the City’s Rules Committee July 7, Steve Berlin, who has headed Chicago’s Board of Ethics since 2008, maintained, “It’s critical to have the ability for the board itself to hear all the evidence, and to make a decision, not to rely on a single individual who is an administrative hearing officer.”

“That’s pretty much what our model is based on,” Mr. Berlin told Rules Committee members, “and it’s not a perfect model, but it’s pretty good model and it approaches best practice.”

The model runs counter to the one recommended by Evanston City staff. Their proposal would have the City create a Special Counsel position to investigate ethics complaints. It further recommended that an administrative hearing officer rather than residents make final decisions.

Evanston officials made the recommendation after a series of ethics complaints brought in response to complaints raised by members of the former City Council. Those complaints charged that the City’s Citizen Board was being “weaponized” in residents’ disputes with Council Members.

In his presentation, Mr. Berlin, the immediate past President of the Council on Government Ethics Laws, an international organization, pointed out that “with a board that serves on a monthly basis, obviously you get institutional knowledge and board members have heard from enough witnesses and enough subjects they can usually tell you –  their meter goes up – when they think that somebody is feeding them a line.”

Mr. Berlin said the Chicago Ethics Board has a working relationship with the city’s Office of Inspector General, which is able to investigate complaints on its own.

Eventually, once the Inspector General completes an investigation and determines there have been violations, “that office will turn over its completed investigation and all of its corroborating evidence to my office, and then I will assign one of my attorneys to do a deep dive into the investigation,” Mr. Berlin said.

“The key principle here is that only the Board of Ethics can make a determination that somebody violated the law,” he said. “Nobody else can. The Inspector General cannot make that determination; the administrative hearing officer cannot make that determination. All both of those agencies can do is make recommendations. In the end it’s up to the board.”

In discussion, Council Member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, chairing the meeting, pointed to the greater resources and larger caseload of the Chicago office and questioned whether the model applied.

“We have run into some problems with getting enough citizens to serve on our Board of Ethics, [and had] problems with a quorum. We have problems with ex parte [outside] contact. We’ve had problems with the board being politically pressured over time.

“So I think part of the interest in having an officer hear these cases is – and this is why I’ll just say that I’m in favor of our new proposed ethics ordinance – is because we won’t have a quorum problem; we’ll have timeliness, and anyone who files a complaint will have a hearing date, and anyone who’s had the complaint filed against them will know their complaint will be timely heard.”

She also noted that the hearing officer is an administrative hearing officer “who hears administrative cases regularly here in Evanston.”

In response to questions from Ms. Wynne, Mr. Berlin estimated his office issues 10 to 15 advisory opinions and some 4,000 opinions of an advisory nature a year.

“The size of the City of Chicago’s government keeps your office very, very busy,” observed Ms.  Wynne. “And I think that we don’t see quite that scale of issues here in Evanston. So what we’re trying to do is tailor an ethics ordinance that fits our size and our budget.”

Council Member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said, “I do believe we need a citizen voice in this process somewhere. I know that there were some struggles with the last board, and so before we have any board, I think it makes sense for us as a Council to make sure they’re equipped to do the job we’ve asked them to do, with the support that they need.”

She further noted that Special Counsel, the City, as well as administrative hearing officer officials would all be paid by the City under the process proposed by Evanston staff.

“For an ethics board,” she said, “that takes out the piece where people feel like they really have a fair, unbiased chance to have their case heard by their peers who would be citizens.”

Another Council Member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, elected to the Council in April, acknowledged that the Citizens Board of Ethics did not work as planned.

“And I think there was there were members that resigned out of frustration because the feeling was that [the Board] was not received with much regard by the Council, to the point where we even had a City Council member voting on a decision by the Board of Ethics to sanction her, and she voted on her own case.”

“I think ethics and government is so key to a democratic functioning municipality – that it’s not about now reducing it to a single person [hearing cases]. “It’s very important that we strengthen the Board of Ethics, that we have a board who is focused, who is passionate, whose expertise is ethics and government.”

The Committee did not take final action on the issue, which will next go to the full City Council.

Earlier in his presentation, Mr. Berlin pointed out that one of the most important functions of a strong ethics program is education.

“Every year we put out an online ethics training program, which is required of all 32,000 or so city officials and city employees, from Mayor Lightfoot to the 650 people who serve as volunteers – including my board members – who serve on city boards and commissions,” he told Rules Committee members.

“That’s a critical thing,” he said. “And that’s really the bread-and-butter of what my agency does, because our basic philosophy is that it is better to educate people in advance and have them call us in advance so that we can say ‘Yes, you can go ahead and do that,’ or ‘No, you can’t do that.’ Or, ‘You can do that if you do it this way or that way.’

“Our goal really is to keep people out of trouble,” he said.

Bob Seidenberg

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.