Make city government more accessible

A view of the City Council Chambers.

Evanston’s new City Council will be sworn in next week. Here are three ideas the aldermen and mayor should consider to make it easier for citizens to become involved in their decision making.


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These changes would help achieve the city’s equity and empowerment goals.

Meet on Tuesdays, not Mondays

One of the biggest obstacles to citizen participation in Evanston government is that our two school boards and the City Council all meet on Monday nights.

It means citizens with concerns about the schools and city government can’t effectively keep up with both.

So, aldermen, break the bad habit. Move City Council meetings to Tuesdays. It would only take 10 of you to change, rather than persuading 14 school board members to shift their civic duty nights.

Release meeting packets on Wednesdays

The packets with details of what City Council will be discussing now are most often released late on Friday afternoons before the Monday meetings.

That’s the classic release time -- known to all publicists trying to bury bad news -- to assure minimum coverage. It’s just when reporters and everybody else are calling it quits for the weekend.

If you want the greatest number of people to have time to learn what’s on the agenda and voice their opinions about it -- release the packet sooner -- no later than the Wednesday before the meeting.

Split off committee meetings

To make council meeting nights less of a marathon for the public and the aldermen, hold standing committee meetings on the first and third Tuesdays each month and council meetings on the second and fourth Tuesdays.

I’m somewhat less confident about this idea than the previous two -- because it would mean that people really focused on an issue might have to show up on twice as many nights to see it through.

But I think the gain in opportunities to have more time to reflect on issues before a final decision -- and more opportunities for the issues to gain media and public attention -- would outweigh that.

It would also give city staff more time to draft any revisions to a proposal made in committee before the item comes up for a final vote by the full City Council.

The Human Services and Rules committees already generally meet on weeks when the full City Council isn’t in session. Have the Administration and Public Works Committee and the Planning and Development Committee follow that pattern as well.

Consider a schedule in which up to three hour-long committee meetings could be held on committee meeting Tuesdays, starting at 6 p.m. and ending by 9 p.m.

Then, on City Council nights, the council meeting could start predictably at 7 p.m. -- instead of beginning anywhere between 7 and 9 p.m. or later as tends to happen now.

Just a few ideas, from a guy who has sat through more City Council and committee meetings than most aldermen.

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Comments

Viewpoint

Just a few ideas, from a guy who has sat through more City Council and committee meetings than most aldermen.
As the exception, I could not disagree with you more.

Reasons?

Hi Ann,

Don't like any of the ideas, or just one or two of them?

Reasons?

-- Bill

Great Ideas for Accessibility!

I agree with you on much of this.  There has been a vast moving target start time for our City Council meetings of late.  I recently tuned in one night expecting a committe meeting and was surprised to see a Council meeting that started at 6:15 PM.  That is virtually unheard of.  Our Evanston electorate needs to know there is a static start time for meetings so that we can better participate.

Getting the packet out earlier would be great for residents and for our aldermen.  More time to review a several-hundred page packet would certainly offer everyone a lot more transparency.

I'd add one more item - stop overusing suspension of the rules in an effort to ram things through quickly.  Just because aldermen might like idea doesn't mean residents shouldn't be allowed ample time to learn about and comment on issues.  Frankly, where is the fire that requires rule suspension on a regular basis?  Let the process we have in place work for the residents.  We don't need to act like our House of Representatives where healthcare legislation is rammed through before the Congressional Budget Office has even had a chance to crunch the data of whom will be affected.  We should strive for the opposite of that behavior in our beautiful "Heavenston".

Bill, I actually AGREE with you!

I could not agree more. I especially like the idea about the packet and agenda for the committee meetings and city council meetings coming out with more advance. I also like the idea of different days between the committee meetings and the council meetings. When things are voted on in committee, it just feels like a forgone conclusion to the public that a similar vote will happen a half hour later in the city council meeting. Let the public have time to reach out to their city council members in between this time. Also, when the committee meetings are long, and then the council meeting is afterward, it has the feeling that the councilpersons are just moving things along and voting on them quickly because it is late and they are exhausted. That is not fair to residents. Another IMPORTANT suggestion in the name of transparency and fairness to residents, please educate us on how things like major developments move through the system and what the considerations are. I feel like I am having to educate myself on this and navigate through a confusing system. Also, many residents have the feeling that these are done deals by the time the public is aware of them. For instance, I am very interested and concerned about such things, and I just learned that a Plan Commission exists, for example, and that is the beginning of the development process. Finally, there is public comment and masses of people can contact their alderperson, but it does not seem like this makes any difference in their decision. I want this, but kind of wondering what the point is, if these reps don't really care. One more thing, is that I agree with the comment that the rules should NOT be suspended to get things through quickly. There are rules for a reason and anything like this cheats us residents who are trying to keep up with a mystery system for many of us as it is. Don't change it on us!

Thanks, but ...

Glad you like the changes I suggested.

However, your impression that every proposal "is a done deal" by the time the public becomes aware of it does not stand up upon examination. Whether it's the original proposal for 831 Emerson, the Pritzker proposal for the Harley Clarke mansion or the city's plan to license landlords -- a lot of ideas get rejected in response to public criticism.

Of course it's also true that negative public response to new ideas doesn't always lead to the best outcomes. Sometimes good ideas get rejected.

And I've repeated the background info about the review process a new development proposal goes through -- from informal public meetings, through DAPR and then Plan Commission to City Council -- so many times in stories over the years that my fingers can almost type it automatically. Perhaps you only started paying attention recently?

Regarding suspension of the rules to approve an ordinance:

it most often happens on routine matters -- like approving a new liquor license, which has already been reviewed by the mayor and the Liquor Control Board.

It requires unanimous consent from the aldermen. And I can't recall a situation in which it was used when anyone from the public had spoken against the proposal. It saves a two- or three-week delay in -- for example -- a new business being able to open.

I don't believe it's been abused. But if you can offer specific instance where you think it caused a problem, maybe I've forgotten.

-- Bill