Peckish Pig’s new city-built patio highlights the need for some additional transparency in Evanston’s government.
It’s a fine thing that the restaurant is getting the patio, as Evanston Now reported Tuesday -- but the process used needs improvement.
First, city staff appear to have substantially underestimated the true value of the materials used. We haven’t been able to find any other vendor who would provide used paver brick for 10-cents each -- the price the city is charging the restaurant.
The bargain price on bricks may have been done to slip the project through without triggering a rule that requires City Council approval for contracts larger than $20,000.
Evanston seeks competitive bids at an auction for aging fleet vehicles it wants to dispose of. It at least should have exercised reasonable care in determining a fair price for the used bricks in the patio.
Second, the city manager may have authorized the work on the assumption that -- having been given authority by the City Council last year to negotiate details of a lease with purchase option agreement for the building with the restaurant owners -- he still had authority to vary the terms of the completed agreement 18 months after it was signed.
The City Council needs to address whether it really intends to give the manager such continuing discretion to act without additional authorization once an agreement is reached.
Third, the city manager may have believed that he had authority to have the work done as part of ongoing maintenance to a city-owned property.
This theory might make good sense -- except that the restaurant owners had assumed all responsibility for maintenance under their lease agreement with the city and that the patio constitutes an improvement to the property, rather than a repair.
Fourth, the city manager says he believed it was in best interest of City's ownership of the property to get the patio up and running -- presumably because the patio would generate more revenue for the restaurant and the restaurant’s success helps the city’s effort to revitalize the neighborhood.
True, but there are any number of things the city could spend money on toward revitalizaing the neighborhood, and they ought to be approved by the City Council first.
Fifth, there is no reason to believe this was emergency work that had to be done before City Council approval could be obtained. The building permit for the patio was submitted on May 8, and work didn’t begin until July.
Sixth, it appears that the pricing and terms of the patio deal provide an additional subsidy from Evanston taxpayers to the restaurant -- beyond the substantial subsidy approved by the City Council last year.
The full City Council gets to approve city grants for $2,000 of new awnings and similar minor improvements for other businesses. It should have had the opportunity to vote on the Peckish Pig patio project as well.
The city has had only limited experience in recent years with buying -- and hopefully reselling -- commercial properties as a technique for economic development.
Since it apparently plans to continue with that strategy, it's time to develop better guidelines for assuring transparency and avoiding the appearance of favoritism in managing those transactions.