Evanston aldermen gave members of the Plan Commission a talking to Monday about discord on the board that led to a walkout at last week’s commission meeting.
At a special City Council meeting the aldermen floated the idea of asking all of the commission’s eight current members to resign, but concluded that, with the mayor already having trouble filling the vacant ninth seat on the panel, starting over was not an appealing option.
The commission has been riven by disputes over building height limits in the draft downtown plan it’s reviewing.
Wednesday night the commission’s low-rise faction tried to cut off debate and force a vote to lower heights limits in the center of downtown while Commission Chairman James Woods, who likely would have opposed the move, was absent. That led Woods’ allies on the panel to walk out, bringing the meeting to a halt for lack of a quorum.
With the commission apparently split 4-4 on key issues, it appears that either side would be able to block progress in reviewing the plan by staging future walkouts.
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said, “I don’t think it’s acceptable” to walk out.
“The Plan Commission has to function. If the vote is close, that’s fine,” Wynne said.
Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, said, “One of the things I greatly admire about this council is that we do not take votes on important issues when members are absent. That’s a reasonable thing for other commissions and committees to do as well.”
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, called the commission “dysfunctional” and said she’s never felt that way before in 19 years as an alderman about one of the city’s boards or commissions.
But Alderman Edmund Moran, 6th Ward, said he recalled years ago that similar factionalism developed on the city’s cable commission, and the council ultimately disbanded it.
Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said he believes the commissioners deserve thanks for taking on “what apparently is a thankless job.” But he urged them to try to work out their differences and get on with their work.
Alderman Steve Bernstein, 4th Ward, said the commissioners do the council a disservice if they believe a vote is all that important, “as if we were rubber stamping whatever the Plan Commission did.”
He said the aldermen carefully consider the arguments made by all sides on the Plan Commission. “At the end of the day what we’re concerned about is your advocacy and feelings” about an issue.
Bernstein argued that Commission Vice Chair Stuart Opdycke should have ruled the motion to cut off debate out of order, rather that walking out of the meeting.
Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, suggested that the city may need a stronger orientation program for new Plan Commission members to help them better understand the boards rules and dynamics.
Mayor Lorraine Morton argued that aldermen concerned about the situation should have brought the issue to her, rather than calling a special council meeting.
“You’re making my job, to get people to serve on these boards, a lot harder in the future, if they’re going to end up being reprimanded in public like this,” Morton said.
She suggested that with her power to dismiss, as well as appoint, members to city boards, she could have more quietly worked through the controversy with the commissioners, had she been given the opportunity to do that.
But she said the city “is lucky to get the caliber of persons we do to be on the Plan Commission.”