Evanston’s Board of Ethics dismissed several allegations of improper conduct brought against Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, by opponents of her views on the Harley Clarke mansion, but concluded she’d used inappropriate language that gave an appearance of a conflict of interest and lack of impartiality.

In a five-hour meeting that ended early Friday morning, the board struggled with the reality that the ethics code they’re charged with enforcing has no provision demanding civility in discussion of public issues.

Instead they focused on a requirement stating that “Every officer and employee” of the city “shall perform his/her duties with impartiality and without prejudice or bias for the benefit of all citizens of the city.”

At some points during the board’s debate, its members acknowledged that impartiality means something different for a city staff member charged with administering policy than for an alderman whose role is to vote on what the policies should be and who logically must be able to advocate for his or her own policy positions.

But they ultimately used Rainey’s advocacy of a policy position combined with her choice of language to find violations of the code.

Regarding a complaint brought by Nancy Sreenan, the board concluded that Rainey:

  • Violated impartiality in using what it called “disparaging language” in referring to Sreenan when she forwarded an email Sreenan had sent aldermen to advocates of demolishing the mansion.
  • Did not violate Sreenan’s rights by sharing the email — that a resident has no expectation of privacy regarding an email sent to public officials, which is in any case subject to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Ethics Board member L.J. Ellul listens to testimony during the hearing.

A second complaint, filed by Lori Keenan and Clare Kelly, sought to use Rainey’s behavior as a rationale to void the City Council’s 7-2 vote to move toward demolition of the mansion. Kelly’s attorney Jeff Smith, known for his unsuccessful effort to have all his competitors in the mayor’s race kicked off the balot last year, also unsuccessfully sought to claim that Rainey had violated state criminal laws by raising funds for the group seeking to pay for the demolition.

On the five counts the board said it had jurisdiction over in that complaint, the board said that Rainey:

  • Did not engage in prohibited fundraising activity.
  • Did not use city property for prohibited poltiical activity.
  • Did not improperly represent a private interest before a city body.
  • Did violate the code by failing to be impartial by mocking a constiutent, using city email for fundraising and giving the appearance of a conflict of interest, among other actions.
  • Did violate the code by exhibiting abuse of power through the same actions.

Board Chair Jennifer Billingsley suggested that recusing herself from future votes on the mansion issue would be an appropriate way for Rainey to address the violations.

The board is scheduled to formally adopt its recommendations at its next meeting on Nov. 20.

The board ruling, which is advisory, will then go the the City Council Rules Committee for further consideration.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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