Should members of the committee that oversees the city’s reparations process receive benefits from the fund if they qualify?

With the first housing grants going out last week, members of the city’s Rules Committee weighed that question at their Jan. 19 meeting.

The seven-member Reparations Committee – which includes three current council members (Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Bobby Burns, 5th Ward; and Devon Reid, 8th Ward), one former Council member (Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward) and three citizens – was created in October 2020 to oversee the city’s Reparations Fund.

The group’s responsibilities include evaluating applications and recommending funding allocations to housing and economic development programs that address historical discrimination by the city.

Committee members held a random drawing Jan. 13 at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, handing out the first $25,000 in restorative housing grants to 16 recipients out of 122 eligible applicants who qualified as “Ancestors.”

At the direction of the Reparations Committee, funds currently available for the Restorative Housing Program will be prioritized for Ancestors. According to guidelines posted on the city’s website, an Ancestor is defined as an African American or Black individual who was an adult Evanston resident between 1919 and 1969.

Generally, members of public bodies are unable to receive gifts, such as money or fees, related to their government service, wrote Nicholas Cummings, the city’s Corporation Counsel, in a memo to the Rules Committee.

“This would create a barrier for Reparations Committee members who may be eligible to receive benefits from the City’s reparations funds,” he explained. “Currently, there is at least one member of the Committee who would be eligible to receive benefits as an Ancestor.”

Cummings recommended Council members amend the city code to allow Reparations Committee members to receive benefits.

In discussion at the Rules Committee meeting, held virtually, Braithwaite thanked staff for addressing the issue. He pointed to Carlis Sutton, a citizen member of the Reparations Committee, as one who would be affected if the restriction stood.

“The value that he brings [as an Ancestor] is truly appreciated on the committee,” Braithwaite said. “He is wise in his words, and he does bring a high level of legitimacy to the work that he does, because he brings that senior perspective. So I would hate because of the color of his skin and any other reasons that we would, based on our rules, create a barrier for him.”

Reid also supported the change, observing that the rule, if applied, “would exclude almost every Black person in the city from serving on the committee, or they would have to forgo being repaired.”

As a precautionary measure, though, Braithwaite suggested that officials check state code to ensure there would be no barriers at that level.

First Ward Council member Clare Kelly said she was “a little uncomfortable,” though, with the position the city was taking.

She said the rules shouldn’t “preclude Mr. Sutton,“ already a member of the committee, from receiving benefits, but the city might want to consider a different policy for new members.

A matter of urgency

Cummings said the matter “really only came up with some urgency because of the drawing last week,” with the 16 recipients receiving notice of awards.

He pointed out that the Reparations Committee at its next meeting could vote to say, “These are the 16 people who were drawn. We still need to send it to the City Council to approve payment. We still don’t know who that is [the recipients] and it could include Mr. Sutton, for example,” he said.

Sutton, a longtime Evanston resident who is active in city affairs, could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday, Jan. 20.

Cummings said he was open to suggestions to make the process better. He said the proposed change was an effort “to say this award is not a gift under the ethics code, period. Like [Reparation Committee members] should be able to participate and [the award] should not be considered a gift and not considered a conflict of their duties. Because we want people who are actually impacted or have been impacted [by past racial policies] to have some input on how this money should be spent, serving on the committee.”

A ‘random process’

Burns underscored that view, saying it’s “fundamental” that individuals affected by past racial practices “have a role in determining the harm and determining how the program is implemented.”

“I think one thing that’s different also,” he added, “is that the selection process is not done by the committee so far – it’s been a random process.

“The committee members did not select the individual recipients,” he said, “and I’m not even quite sure that the committee has to officially approve the recipients, because the process does that. I don’t think they officially approved what happened at Fleetwood. I think that could really just go straight to Council.”

Rules Committee members took no vote on the issue, backing Braithwaite’s suggestion to revisit the matter at their next meeting.

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.