Evanston City Council members revisited ground of the previous City Council at their July 12th meeting, refusing to approve a $3,185 payment for an intern then-City Clerk Devon Reid employed in his office.
Council members voted 5-4 against approving an amended bills list of roughly $3.1 million, including the payment to the intern.
With Second Ward Council Member Peter Braithwaite absent from the meeting, Mayor Daniel Biss cast the tie-breaking vote under City rules that give the Mayor that authority.
Voting against the proposal in addition to Mr. Biss were Council members Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward; Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward; Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward; and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward.
Voting in favor of the proposal, including the payment to the intern, were Council members Clare Kelly, 1st Ward; Bobby Burns, 5th Ward; Mr. Reid, now 8th Ward Council Member; and Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward.
Mr. Reid then called for a hold on all bill payments, which he said he was happy to withdraw for another Council vote, reconsidering the action.
That vote failed 5-4 as well.
Afterward, Mr. Reid warned Council members they could be opening up the City to a lawsuit “that would cost more than paying this invoice for work that was done by a student.
“A young man,” he added, “who grew up in our community, graduated from ETHS, has been recognized by the League of Women Voters, [who] has done tremendous work in the Clerk’s office.”
Members of the previous City Council refused to authorize payments to the intern in August 2020, maintaining Mr. Reid hired the student against the advice of staff and then afterward requested the City pay him.
Because the former Council did not expressly deny the request but instead removed it from the bill payments, the request for payment could be submitted again, ruled Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings at the start of the July 12 discussion, responding to a question.
In the discussion, Mr. Burns, who for a short time served as Deputy Clerk during Mr. Reid’s term, argued in favor of paying the intern, maintaining not to do so amounted to a kind of “wage theft.”
The intern “did a great job, he’s always done a great job for the Clerk’s office,” Mr. Burns argued.
“This was at a time where the Clerk had already had a position reassigned to another department and had a Deputy Clerk removed from his department,” Mr. Burns said. “And this was, as far as I understand, within the Clerk’s office budget,” as well as the Clerk’s right to hire and fire, he said.
“This is not how our City should be saving money,” Mr. Burns argued. “If we want to figure out how to make sure this doesn’t happen again, we certainly can do that. But he [the intern] did the work. And I think he deserves to be paid.”
Mayor Biss, not a member of the last Council, said from his study of the matter, the issue hinged on who the hiring authority for the Clerk’s office was.
“There was a clear communication from the City’s Human Resources Department both to the worker in question and to Clerk Reid well prior to the period in question, indicating that it was not possible to bring him on. It was not possible to compensate him,” the Mayor said. “He [Clerk Reid] was made aware of that.”
At the July 12 meeting, Mr. Reid maintained that authority was the Clerk’s, quoting from sections of the City Code: “The Clerk’s office is not listed as a department of the City,” he said. “The finances of the Clerk’s office are subject to the approval of the City Council but not the City Manager.”
Mr. Reid added later that it is also not clear whether the office was over-budget at the time of the request, responding to one of the concerns for the payment.
Mr. Cummings maintained, though, that the person in question in this case was a contractor, and said that the City Manager has wide latitude over the how contractors are compensated up to a certain amount.
Ms. Revelle, also a member of the last Council, spoke to confirm that a hiring freeze was in place during the intern’s hiring.
Mr. Reid maintained there was no documented hiring freeze at the time he brought in the intern.
“And in fact, there’s hiring of employees and contractors throughout the organization during this time that this hiring freeze was in place,” he said.
Ms. Fleming said she saw different sides to the issue. But, “I think that the person who did the work has some ownership here in what they committed to do, understanding that they were told that they may or likely were not going to get paid for,” she said.
Ms. Kelly criticized her colleagues, speaking of the much larger costs the City rolled up without the same kind of attention.
“I mean, I’m just amazed at the kind of things that the millions and millions and millions that we can approve without justifications – overpayments. And now we’re talking about $3,000 for someone who actually did the work. [You can say], ‘You know, he should have known he doesn’t get paid.’ Everybody has to get [that] there was a lot of turmoil at the time around the Clerk’s office and the political environment. But he [the intern] did the work,” Ms. Kelly emphasized.