For more than two months, the Design and Project Review Committee has been stuck in limbo – not quite dead, but not quite alive, either.

The design committee, the DAPR, hasn’t held a meeting since June 14, one day after the Planning and Development Committee approved an ordinance to dissolve its formal committee structure. The City Council has twice tabled the ordinance since then, and it is now scheduled for the Sept. 12 meeting.

The city’s Land Use Commission on May 25.

If passed, it would not eliminate the work the design committee exists to do – running development proposals past staff members from across the city’s departments to identify issues for the Land Use Commission. But instead of a formal committee structure and meetings, it would shift the review process to more informal staff meetings yielding internal comment sheets.

To committee, or not to committee: It’s not only a question for the design committee, but also for the large constellation of groups, both past and present that make up the city’s boards, commissions and committees, or BCCs. Each has its own unique purpose, powers and makeup, making it difficult to disentangle for an outside observer.

To help out, here is a simple introduction to Evanston’s BCCs: what they are, what they do, who sits on them, and how you (yes, you!) could join one.

What are boards, commissions and committees?

At their core, BCCs are groups of people the city formally tasks to study and work on a specific topic. Each one is supposed to have at least one city staffer assigned to it to help implement their plans and provide information and advice. All ultimately report back to the City Council.

If that sounds pretty general, it’s because no two BCCs across the 41 that currently exist are exactly alike, differing in:

  • If they’re established by state law, city ordinance or an ad hoc motion;
  • How many members they have;
  • If they’re made up of elected officials, city staff, residents or a mixture;
  • What qualifications, if any, they have for membership;
  • Whether they report directly to the City Council or to an intermediary committee;
  • Whether their powers are advisory, administrative or quasi-judicial;
  • And if they meet on a regular schedule or as needed.

To cover all of these details for every BCC would turn this 101 into a graduate-level course; Instead, here are the main categories of BCCs, as listed on the city’s website

Standing committees (7)

According to the city’s BCC member handbook, there are officially four “standing committees” made up solely of City Council members: Administration and Public Works, Planning and Development, Human Services and Rules. These committees filter most of the legislation that goes to a full council vote, and all of them have multiple subordinate committees that report to them.

Also in this category are the Reparations Committee and the Finance and Budget Committee, both of which have a mixed membership of council members and residents. Their designation as “standing” committees reflects the importance of their focuses, and both are established in the city’s City Code.

Special committees (5)

Most of these committees meet very rarely or on an as-needed basis, as they only exist for, well, special purposes. Almost all communicate with either the state government or local institutions of comparable size, such as school districts 65 and 202, and Northwestern University.

Short-term committees (6)

These committees are designed to work on a specific project or need for a relatively short amount of time and then disband upon the project’s completion. Almost all are very recent ad-hoc creations, except for the resident-only Compensation Committee, which forms every four years to determine updated salaries for the mayor and council members.

Mayoral-appointed boards, commissions and committees (25)

The majority of BCCs fall into this general category, overseeing everything from investing in private and public art projects to managing pension funds for police officers and firefighters. Most of these BCCs are established in the City Code, are specifically mandated by state law or both.

“Mayoral-appointed” is a bit of a misnomer, as three of them do not have mayoral appointments while multiple committees in other categories do. But it is true that the majority of resident BCC members serve in this category – and oh boy, there are a lot of them.

Resident involvement and leadership

In a previous City Government 101 on Evanston’s city manager form of government, the office of mayor was described as “comparatively weak,” holding little executive power and no administrative power. But the mayor does have one additional power to exercise: appointing all resident members of the city’s BCCs for the City Council to approve.

More than two-thirds of the city’s BCCs have at least one resident on them, and 10 are made up entirely of residents. There are over 140 resident spots across all the BCCs that aren’t reserved for representatives of specific organizations. They serve as unpaid volunteers, providing their expertise and perspectives to the city on their BCC’s area of concern.

Anyone who lives or works in Evanston is able to apply to become a BCC member through the city’s online application. From there, the process is simple: When a vacancy comes up, the mayor reviews all of the applicants to that BCC and selects one to appoint. That appointment then to the next City Council meeting, typically along with any other appointments being made. If the appointees pass with a majority vote, they officially become BCC members.

It often isn’t a fully-open field for applicants though, as many resident positions require qualifications or expertise of some kind to contribute to the group’s strength. The level of these qualifications range from two of the seven residents on the Social Services Committee having lived experience with the services the committee funds, to all seven residents on the Equity and Empowerment Commission having specific professional experience or skills.

Although resident members are unpaid volunteers, because they act as official advisors to the city they are subject to the same professional standards as city staff – namely the city’s Code of Ethics, the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. It’s these standards that make a committee “formal”: meetings must be known to the public and open for comment, documents discussed or created must be disclosed upon request, and members must adhere to the Code of Ethics and annually file a “Financial Disclosure and Affiliations Statement.”

Although these standards may seem high for volunteers, there is no shortage of residents willing to take up the task, with appointments (and reappointments) being a frequent agenda item for regular council meetings. The importance of resident leadership is expressed in the city’s BCC handbook, addressed to newly appointed members:

“Our city is greatly enriched by the work of the many volunteer B/C/C members who contribute their time, effort and expertise to help improve the quality of life for all residents,” the handbook’s introduction reads. An appointment “will provide a unique opportunity for you to contribute to the vitality of our community, while enjoying the satisfaction of applying your talents and experience to meaningful public work.”

Formality and frequent changes

But those standards of formality bring us back to the design committee and a central question: When are formal committees needed, and when are they not?

In the ordinance’s associated memo, former Community Development Director Johanna Nyden told the Planning and Development Committee that removing the requirement to gather all committee members for every meeting and hold formal votes could take a lot of pressure off of staff members.

“The removal of formalities would give staff more flexibility as to when to meet and the frequency,” Nyden wrote in the memo.

But council members also raised concerns that ditching the structured meetings, with built-in time for public comment, would restrict the residents’ ability to voice their input. Former Council Member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said design committee meetings are vital for residents who want to comment on the nuts and bolts of a proposal in their ward.

“It’s always understood that you’re going to invite a developer to your ward meeting,” Braithwaite said. “But DAPR is like the technical space where citizens have the ability to engage.” 

The DAPR’s fate will be decided by the City Council on Sept. 12 (barring another motion to table it, of course). But just because a BCC is formally structured doesn’t necessarily guarantee much. There are sometimes disconnects between information listed on the city’s website and what a body is actually doing, down to whether it is even actually active.

For example, there are three BCCs listed as active on the landing page that are currently defunct: the Affordable Housing Plan Steering Committee, the Alternatives to Arrest Committee and the Commission on Aging. Council Member Eleanor Revelle of the 7th Ward sat on the first two committees, and told the RoundTable via email that both became inactive early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Revelle wrote that the city “will soon be engaged in developing a new comprehensive plan” that she expects “will bring us back to setting affordable housing goals and adopting a strategy to achieve those goals.” She also wrote that the Alternatives to Arrest Committee was monitoring a new administrative adjudication program when the pandemic began. 

“It’s my sense that committee members felt that the committee’s charge had been met,” Revelle wrote.

Parks and Recreation Director Audrey Thompson told the RoundTable via email that the Commission on Aging “is active and is in the process of recruiting members” and is working on a proposal to reconstitute as the “Commission on Aging and Disabilities.”

Other large changes to BCCs are made frequently, such as these from just the past year:

  • The Planning Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals were merged into a single Land Use Commission;
  • The city’s largest BCC, the 17-member Reimagining Public Safety Committee, shifted from meeting monthly to as-needed while its three working groups continue to meet regularly;
  • The Lighthouse Landing Complex Committee was reconstituted and revived after more than a year of inactivity;
  • The Finance and Budget Committee was codified as a Standing Committee;
  • And the Board of Ethics was stripped of its power to investigate and hold hearings for ethics complaints, which respectively shifted to a Special Counsel and the administrative adjudication division.

Mapping it out

With so many BCCs active and the frequent changes they go through, it can be difficult to keep track of all of them. To help put them all into perspective, here’s an interactive diagram showing which BCCs report where. You can click on each organization to learn more about its purpose, membership and activities.

More Evanston 101: The RoundTable offers a crash course of information on many local topics.

Alex Harrison reports on local government, public safety, developments, town-gown relations and more for the RoundTable. He graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in June...