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UPDATE CITY CODE to assure City Council accountability & shared knowledge base (Letter to Editor, Evanston, IL)

Thanks to the Evanston RoundTable for publishing this letter to the editor that I wrote in mounting frustration at the amount of damage control our City Council inflicts on itself (and the rest of us — voters, City staff, businesses, etc.) as the result of an outdated City Code.

An extra thanks to editor Susy Schultz for embracing bullet points in formatting my letter, something I’d been discouraged from doing over the years for hard copy newspapers (because of space limitations). Now that the RoundTable (and so many other newspapers) have gone on-line, space (and layout labor) is not at the same kind of premium. Hopefully bullet points (and other graphic tools) will make longish articles, letters, etc., more accessible to readers. 

A. PREFACE: The big picture of U.S. governance
B. LETTER TO THE EDITOR: We need more City Council accountability
C. COMMENTS to letter

UPDATE June 8, 2022

On June 6, 2022 the Rules Committee of the City of Evanston had a 30-minute discussion on two items relevant to this blog:
D1.  Discussion of Alternative Forms of Government for the City of Evanston
D2.  Discussion on the Role of City Council and Council Members In the Managerial Form of Municipal Government

These were the last two items on the agenda (in advance of a Human Services Committee meeting, also with a “packed” agenda per Chairperson Braithwaite). This meant that the discussions were rushed, distracted, and unsatisfactory. Worse, they seemed to have been intended as an end-around of citizens’ interest in in-depth, meaningful, and effective discussions about official accountability beyond and in addition to the 4-year accountability cycle of elections. 

The really bad news, from my perspective, is that the materials prepared for this meeting by the Corporate Counsel do not fully answer my original question — What are the duties & powers of the City Council as a whole and as individual alderpeople?
— I don’t think that Evanston residents should be expected to know that our City Council’s purpose derives from the State of Illinois. Whatever this purpose is should be stated in our City Code, as our foundational document.
— Even worse (and proof that we need a more interactive process), my reference to “individual” alderpeople (and former City Clerk Rodney Greene’s corroboration) seems to have been misunderstood. Individual alderpeople do have duties & powers — e.g., voting, making referrals, ward meetings, etc. Why isn’t there a short enumeration of the basic duties & powers in the City Code — just like there is for Mayor, City Manager, and City Clerk? 

The good news is that the materials related to the June 6 Rules Committee meeting can serve as a starting point for a more interactive, comprehensive civic process. Here’s the links:
Video (City TV) 1:42:00 – 2:13:00 (30 mins)
—Meeting Agenda (see last 2 items, D1 and D2)
—Materials prepared by Corporation Council N. Cummings
D1: Alternative forms of government for the City of Evanston (3-page PDF)
D2: Discussion on the Role of City Council and Council Members In the Managerial Form of Municipal Government (2-page PDF)

The next question is:
—Can we have this foundational discussion — a review of this portion of the City Code — in Evanston ASAP?
—Are other residents interested?
—Is the City Council willing to host this initiative?
—Is there a better host — e.g., the League of Women Voters, a coalition of Evanston media outlets, some other group?

This may be the closest that any of us get to attending a Constitutional Convention or actually ratifying the U.S. Constitution (which none of us have ever done). I, for one, would like to participate and experience the visioning, deliberation, and consensus of the “one good mind” (Haudenosaunee tradition).

A. PREFACE: The big picture of U.S. governance

I’d like to add some “big picture” context to our power issues in Evanston, issues that are not all the fault of the Evanston City Council and that are not all fixable within the city limits of Evanston, or Cook County, or the State of Illinois. They derive from the fact that the U.S. Constitution has never been ratified by:
— any woman
— any Indigenous person
— any African-American
— any U.S. citizen alive in my lifetime (71 years)
— any U.S. citizen alive in 2022

I realized this fact when I began studying the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee League, the precursor to the federation that became the United States of America. I learned that the Great Law of Peace had a 5-year sunset clause. In other words, it required re-ratification every five years. (If I understand the Great Law correctly, amendments could be made either at the re-ratification times or in the interregnum periods.)

The point of re-ratification, of course, is to:
— make the law a living one aligned with the actual conditions of life
— refresh everyone’s minds about what we all agreed to
— clean out old rules that no longer serve the whole
— regularly educate the next generations
My first blog about this was in 2015: No one alive today signed on! (to U.S. Constitution) Low Voter Confidence

The City of Evanston would do well to understand and address these condition in our governance structures — as aging, outdated, rotting, and disintegrating as our national public works infrastructure.

We need more City Council accountability

Published May 31, 2022 in the Evanston RoundTable

In the light of yet another City of Evanston SNAFU (not accommodating City Manager-elect John Fournier’s request to restructure his contract), how are we supposed to keep individual Council members accountable if nobody knows what they’re supposed to do? And how are we supposed to understand the interlocking duties and powers of city leadership, if those duties and powers are not specified for the City Council itself and not regularly reviewed?

I recommend that the City Code be updated to review and harmonize the interlocking duties and powers of the City Council, the Mayor, City Clerk and the City Manager. This would be an educational experience for all and might clarify the job of Council member and Mayor for future candidates, as well as for voters new to Evanston’s government –either young voters or seasoned voters who moved to Evanston.

Moreover, the process would create a shared knowledge base about: 
• What a city government can do,
• what it can’t do and
• who’s in charge of what? 

Getting voters and officials on the same page would go a long way in terms of more effective public processes and decisions.

Such a public process would provide a good forum for discussing an issue that has been rumbling around in Evanston for a few years: Should Evanston’s governance model be changed to a strong Mayor/Council form or remain a weak Mayor/Council form administered by a City Manager?

Some of these terms are confusing. At this stage in my learning (at the age of 71), I would prefer a professional manager as opposed to a popularly elected mayor who may or may not have the qualifications to run a city.

On the other hand, I know that I would benefit from an extended public discussion about terminology and governance models, etc., including models not yet mentioned. I believe that other Evanstonians and city staff would benefit from such a big-picture discussion, including current city officials.

For a succinct outline of these issues, see my August 2021 letter to Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter, the Evanston law firm that investigated the lakefront sexual harassment scandal (Section B of my August 2021 blog, Public trust in Evanston, IL: Sexual harassment complaints buried for years, weeks, days). My email to the law firm addressed some structural issues with the following recommendations:
• Update City Code regarding interlocking duties and powers of City Council, Mayor, City Clerk and City Manager through a dedicated public process.
• Evanston should find another word for the office of Mayor, in conjunction with updating the City Code.

Unfortunately, the report did not address these structural issues.

In addition, for what it’s worth, I do not agree with the findings in the report regarding former City Manager Erika Storlie and former Mayor Steven Hagerty. 

I believe both are culpable in not dealing with the issue in a timely fashion and not letting Council members know. In my April 2022 blog, Lakefront Staff Misconduct in Evanston, IL: Final Reflections on Investigation & Report, I address the mayor’s role, the election season that was imminent (starting September 2020), and, again, the big-picture issues of terminology, qualifications for elected office, etc. I believe a public process to update the City Code sections on the City Council, Mayor, City Clerk and City Manager would also address some of these secondary issues.

The good news about living in “Damage Control Central” these days? We have lots of recent, real time examples to:
• Publicly hash out a better governance model, and 
• Create more of a consensus on the City of Evanston’s direction and priorities based on an updated knowledge base of City leadership roles and responsibilities, which would be shared by both officials and voters.

(signed) Debbie Hillman

Debbie Hillman works full-time on local food systems, following a 25-year, Evanston-based gardening career. Since 2005 she’s worked on both policy and projects as a co-founder of The Talking Farm, Edible Acre at ETHS, the Illinois Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Plan, as well as Midwestern and national initiatives.

C. COMMENTS (as of June 2, 2022)

Joanne Davis says:
June 2nd, 2022 at 11:41 AM
Your letter is poignant and demonstrates a keen awareness.
Thanks for writing……

Fred Wittenberg says:
June 1st, 2022 at 3:20 PM
Kudos to Debbie Hillman. At a Council Meeting over 3 years ago, I requested Wally Bobkiewicz’s termination and former Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar, both to be held responsible for the James Park fiasco. Before the meeting started, Steven Hagerty was running around patting staff on their backs, and honoring them for the supposed good service they’ve done, as pictures were taken. To me it was revolting, based on the reason for my being there. And, problems with this city only got worse after that!

Rodney Greene says:
June 1st, 2022 at 11:14 AM
I totally agree with Debbie Hillman’s facts, and I know first hand since I was the City Clerk for close to 9 years.

There is no definitive description of the duties or responsibilities of a Council member. All it now states is: 1) must be an Evanston Resident, 2) must live in the ward they are applying for, 3) must not have any arrests or convictions in the State, 4) they decide who will be the next City Manager, etc, etc…

Most Council members form connections with other members to acquire votes for their personal agendas, and make promises to who votes with them to support their next project.
There are behind the door agreements made before a Council Meeting is called to order, as well as under the table compensations received from developers in certain wards.

The council many times are influenced by groups who yell the loudest or show up in large masses, instead of listening and abiding to the cry of the less represented minorities.

It’s time for the Local Government to stop catering to their selfish, knothole, agendas for their ward (Kingdom), and center the thoughts and progress on assisting the whole Evanston community. I’ve stated earlier in my tenure as the City Clerk the following statement: “There are 10 Kingdoms in Evanston ( 9 Wards and a Mayor)”, and at some point they all need to come together for the good of all residents and not just their Ward/Kingdom. They all were voted into representing this city as our governing body, to serve their constituent’s and this city to the best of their abilities. They took an oath to do exactly that and to make the city better than what they inherited.

Let’s begin together as a united front to demand their accountability, moral/ethical behavior, as well as their transparency in all of their decisions concerning our City of Evanston.