The Rules Committee meeting Monday, Dec. 5. A proposal to expand the membership of the Referrals Committee was on the agenda. Credit: City of Evanston YouTube

A City Council member’s proposal to expand the size of the city’s Referrals Committee, giving the group greater representation as it assigns items for public discussion, failed to move forward at the Dec. 5 meeting of the city Rules Committee.

Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, made the proposal to expand the three-member Referrals Committee.

The Referrals Committee was established several months into the seating of a new council in April 2021. Previously referrals had come through the city manager’s office.

Mayor Daniel Biss serves as chair and Council Members Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, and Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, are the other members.

Biss, with backing from council members, turned to the system to create a more streamlined system and avoid a logjam of issues and prolonged discussion at City Council meetings.

The group considers agenda items suggested by the mayor, a council member or the city manager based on criteria established by the council.

The criteria include such factors as time sensitivity, scope of an issue, demand on staff resources, community interest and connection to existing policy.

Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, supports allowing more members on the Referrals Committee. Credit: City of Evanston YouTube

Burns and fellow first-term Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, have argued that a larger number of members should serve on the panel “so the Referrals Committee is more representative of the city and [City Council] as a whole,” Reid said at the Dec. 5 Rules Committee meeting, in a continuation of an Oct. 3 committee discussion.

“I think it makes sense that we allow folks who would like to be part of this committee to be part of a committee, similar to other committees,” Reid said.

Biss, who sits on the Rules Committee as a voting member, spoke in opposition to such a move, arguing there a number of ways to address the concern “within the current confines.”

Goal to be ‘ministerial, quick’: Biss

“The point of the Referrals Committee is be efficient, ministerial, quick, and I think expanding membership is a clear step in the wrong direction,” Biss said.

Burns, participating remotely, raised an idea he initially brought up at the Oct. 3 Rules Committee meeting: addressing the representation issue by creating a rotating schedule, with two council members rotating onto the committee at intervals.

“It was Mayor Biss who mentioned that he was working on a schedule for the Referrals Committee. Can you provide an update on that?” Burns asked the mayor.

Biss said he didn’t recall saying he was working a schedule. “I do recall there was some meeting where that idea was floated, and I vaguely recall that there was talk about it showing up on this agenda tonight,” he said. “But certainly I was not working on a rotation for the Referrals Committee.”

(A review of a recording of the meeting has the mayor addressing Reid on the rotation idea and suggesting “if you want to come back to the next Rules Committee with a rotation plan for us to vote on, I think that makes perfect sense. We could treat it like the other standing committees.”)

‘Straightforward administrative decision’: Revelle

Revelle, participating remotely, said she was puzzled about the proposal to expand the committee. “I mean, the whole point of the Referrals Committee is merely to forward all pending items … to an appropriate committee to address the issue,” she said. “We consult with the city manager to determine what other issues are on the committee’s agenda, and what kind of demands there might be on staff to prepare background material. And so that sort of influences the timing that we suggest to the committee where we forward it. But all the pending issues get referred. We don’t have a backlog of referral items sitting there, waiting for us to make up our minds.

“It took a while at the beginning to get a system going,” she said, “but now we have our Referrals Committee staff [Alison Leipsiger] who follows up with the committee where the items have been referred to, to make sure the committee chair and staff for the committee have received the referral and figured out … what meeting to put it on the agenda.”

Revelle said the chairperson of council committees rotates, and it might be helpful if the staff member for those groups keep an accurate list of pending referrals so they don’t get lost, “but I’m struggling to see what the problem is there we’re trying to solve here by ‘broadening the perspectives on the committee.’ It’s not a perspective-driven decision. It’s a pretty straightforward administrative decision.”

Not purely administrative: Reid

Reid responded that if the committee is purely administrative, then “I don’t really see the point of it.”

He said the problem he and Burns are trying to solve is the committee hasn’t been purely administrative. He said there are decisions the committee has made that can influence the outcome of an ordinance. “There are referrals that have been held at the committee because the Referrals Committee wasn’t prepared to act on an item.”

He cited as examples his proposals reducing possession of burglary tools from a felony charge to a fine as well as a more gender-neutral definition of public nudity, both of which eventually were passed by the council.

He said “having more diverse or just more members allows more perspectives” to come out.

Burns also argued along the same lines, noting the Referrals Committee can determine what venue an issue goes to for followup. “So the fact that a committee exists, suggests there’s some deliberation between the members of the body,” he said.

Reid, Burns proposals rejected

Asked to explain his comment earlier that there are other options available to address representation concerns, Biss noted that the Rules Committee makes appointments to the standing committees, including the Referrals Committee.

“If the Rules Committee thinks that the current representation of the Referrals Committee is inadequately representative … this body can change that at a drop of a hat,” he said.

Reid moved that the proposal for expanded membership be tabled until the next Rules Committee meeting, intending to bring back at that time a rotational schedule and possibly other changes.

That motion failed. Rules Committee members, similarly, then voted 8-2 against Burns’ proposal to expand the members of the Referrals Committee, with Burns and Reid casting the dissenting votes.

Ninth Ward Council Member Juan Geracaris, meanwhile, added that he had a referral to the Referrals Committee, calling for more transparency in the referrals process.

He said his proposal grew out of a discussion with the city’s Equity & Empowerment Commission and that group’s concern that sometimes issues come to the council before the equity group is fully informed.

His referral would add an agenda item on a monthly basis to inform that group, “to give them transparency to what we’re doing and also help them … flag things that need an equity scorecard added too.”

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.

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