City Corporation Counsel Jack Siegel has concluded Northwestern University is correct in its contention that it’s not required to disclose its property acquisitions to the city in advance.

Despite that, at tonight’s NU-City Committee meeting, David Schoenfeld, a city appointee to the committee, continued to insist the consent decree that established the committee requires such disclosures.

But Aldermen Cheryl Wollin, 1st Ward, and Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, said that in light of Siegel’s opinion, there’s no point in continuing the argument, although “relations between the university and the city would be much better if the university did make such disclosures,” Ald. Tisdahl said.

“Real estate acquistions — on the part of city government, private developers or non-profits don’t get talked about publicly in advance,” Eugene Sunshine, the university’s senior vice president for business and finance, said, “There’s a reason why the city council goes into executive session to discuss real estate matters.”

The university’s purchase of a home at 1945 Orrington Ave. this spring triggered the controversy over disclosure of real estate deals.

Eli Wolf, who lives at next door at 634 Foster St., said the secret purchase showed the university wasn’t a good neighbor, but he acknowledged at the meeting that the university responded immediately to his wife’s request to take care of some maintenance issues with the home it acquired.

Mr. Sunshine, who lives in a university-owned home at 1620 Judson Ave., said the school plans to use the house on Orrington for temporary housing for university faculty.

“We bought it because it’s in an area zoned for university housing, it’s close to campus and it’s around other university buildings so it interferes as little as possible with non-university uses,” he said. Much of the block is occupied by the Foster-Walker dormitory complex.

Peter Lobin, attending his first meeting as a new city representative on the committee, asked, “How can we build a little more trust here and try to move forward as neighbors?”

Mr. Sunshine said the school tries in a lot of ways. It has a staff person who works full-time trying to improve the relationship, participating in meetings with residents about security and student behavior issues.

It also pays for extra dumpsters to be placed near students housing when students are moving out, to reduce trash disposal problems, he said.

But the NU-City Committee may not be the right forum for much of that work, he suggested.

“This committee was set up explicitly as part of the settlement of a lawsuit. It has a particularly narrow scope,” Mr. Sunshine said, “I believe it’s very important for the university and the community to have a broader and better relationship, and there are a lot of other forums for that.”

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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9 Comments

  1. Secret NU Land Buys Not “OK”
    Although I made it quite clear at last night’s meeting of the NU/City Committee, your post fails to acknowledge the basis of my view that NU violated the Consent Decree by withholding disclosure of it purchase of 1945 Orrington Avenue. In case you were not paying attention, instead of simply not interested, let me repeat it here.

    First, the notion that Jack Siegel endorsed the non-disclosure of the 1945 Orrington purchase is at this point unsubstantiated hearsay. Alderman Wollin simply claimed that is his opinion, but she has not released a written opinion to that effect, despite my request. Moreover, the discussion with Mr. Siegel allegedly occurred in an executive session of the City Council, so we taxpaying voters have no idea if it actually occurred or if Ald. Wollin is reporting it accurately. Finally, one wonders why, if this discussion was sensitive enough to require an executive session, Ald. Wollin is now selectively blurting out her understanding of the Corporation Counsel’s legal opinion? Could it be to protect her patrons in the NU adminstration?

    Turning to the actual terms of the Consent Decree, I come to this issue as an attorney with over 20 years of experience in federal court litigation. The Consent Decree requires NU to disclose any “issues related to planning, land use, building and zoning pertaining to the University’s current T1 and T2 District properties.” Gene Sunshine admitted in an April 25 e-mail that NU acquired the 1945 Orrington property “because the area is zoned for University purposes and the University already owned all but two properties in the entire block.” Similarly, Alan Cubbage admitted in the Daily that the reason NU acquired 1945 Orrington is that “we own everything else on that block and it is zoned for university use.” If Northwestern’s deliberations as to whether to acquire this property took into account any prospective consolidation with or use in conjunction with the adjacent T2 property currently owned by the University, then this issue plainly “relate[ed] to planning, land use, building and zoning pertaining to the University’s current T1 and T2 District properties” and hence fell within the letter of the consent decree. NU implicitly concedes that this was indeed the case and, moreover, it would be utterly implausible to suggest that it was not. There may be other respects in which this issue fell within the Consent Decree’s express or implied terms, but this one is quite obvious.

    Finally, and perhaps ultimately most importantly, your post omitted another point I made (again) last night: the matter of good faith and the spirit of the Consent Decree. I have attempted in our meetings to convey my belief that Northwestern brings much of the current public enmity and suspicion upon itself by acting secretly, unilaterally and selfishly. Northwestern’s decision to deal with the community through this committee as legal adversaries rather than as neighbors can only exacerbate that problem. It should also be a cautionary note to any public official dealing with Northwestern on behalf of the community.

    1. Siegel’s opinion
      Thanks for your comments Dave, you’ve certainly articulated your position better than I could.

      I asked the city legal staff this morning for a copy of Jack Siegel’s letter, and, as I recall, the aldermen said last night that they plan to send a copy to you. So hopefully we’ll both have the document soon.

      While I haven’t seen it yet, since both aldermen present last night agreed about its bottom line, I’m willing to take their word for it for the moment.

      Meanwhile, interested readers can evaluate the consent decree’s language for themselves. A copy of it is attached to this earlier item on the controversy.

  2. Apparently you bought a bill of goods
    I have yet to receive the written opinion promised to both of us. Moreover, I doubt you have received it either because I’m told Jack Siegel denies offering it. I guess you can put anything you want on a blog, but if you were to adhere to any sort of journalistic standards, one might have expected (a) that you would have at least tried to confirm Alderman Wollin’s claim with Mr. Siegel before running with it, and failing confirmation, (b) that the real story here would be Alderman Wollin’s mendacity, not a gullible stenographic reproduction thereof.

    1. Some Civility? Please?

      “Northwestern brings much of the current public enmity and suspicion upon itself by acting secretly, unilaterally and selfishly.”

      I generally agree with this sentiment (except the “selfishly” part).

      Having said that, I’d like to call attention to the tone of your comments. Are you surprised the University isn’t eager to discuss these matters? It’s no wonder it takes a legal maneuver to get them to the table.

      Bill Smith should be applauded for creating an asset for our community rather than subjected to attacks. Is Ald. Wolin’s “mendacity” the real story? If so, please write about it and post it to this site so we can discuss.

      1. Some Civility? Please?
        Adam, how about being open? The fact that you are a Northwestern employee, especially in University Relations, does reflect upon your comments. As both an NU alum and a resident of Evanston for over four decades, I — and many others — are not only convinced, but have witnessed its selfish and secretive behavior many times. The purchase of 1800, with a belated sop of money to the city, considerably less than the lost tax revenue, after an outcry over its impact on city, school and TIF finances. Its behavior in the Research Park fiasco. And of course its actions in assisting Ald. Wolin’s election, tell just part of the story. I’ll be more than glad to give you a tutorial on NU’s lack of concern for the city and its citizens.

        As for Ald. Wolin’s “mendacity”, give her time she will give us all the lessons we need.

        1. Being Open
          I’m not making an effort to conceal the fact that I work at the University. I wasn’t commenting on the purchase, the consent decree, the legalities, or who’s right/wrong so I didn’t see a conflict. Given the… what’s a good word… passion involved I should have known better 🙂

          I would like to clarify that I do not work in University Relations and in no way reflect the views of the administration, etc, etc. I once held a position in UR (but not in media/PR) and avoided discussing town/gown–even casually with friends/neighbors–to avoid such confusions. Having left that position, I feel it’s fair for me to discuss University actions like any other resident does with any other issue.

          Working for the University in no way compromises the independence of my thought. I am a resident and intend to live in Evanston beyond my employment there.

          I don’t live in the ward so the purchase and the committee don’t concern me. University development on that and adjoining properties is a neighborhood matter. And, yes, they should discuss this with the community and that shouldn’t require a legal agreement. It’s what good neighbors do.

          Questioning Bill Smith’s “journalistic standards” crossed a line, that’s all. I thank him for this forum.

          1. Continued loss of property tax revenue
            Bill
            I attended the NU/City committee on June 22. I must say that in nearly 12 years of participating in city government affairs, no one has ever spoken to me in such a condescending, patronizing, and uncivilized manner as did Mr. Sunshine, vice president of finance for Northwestern University. I want to applaud Mr. Schoenfeld and Mr. Atkins for their tenacity and their assertive representation on behalf of all Evanstonians, which is more than we get from any elected official.

            In 1998, born out of higher property taxes and budget cuts, residents’ formed the Fair Share Action Committee, a group committed to demonstrating to the city council that the will of residents’ was to have the city council enter negotiations with Northwestern, to obtain a significant, monetary contribution to help offset the loss of property tax revenue generated by its large institutional land holdings that do not contribute to the tax base. Adam, I do not live in the ward or neighborhood, however, this issue affects all Evanston residents. The problem really is that the city cannot make up for the cumulative effect of the loss of property tax revenue going back many decades.

            In March of 2000, 82% of voters in Evanston expected the city council to represent their voice when they passed the Fair Share referendum. Instead, residents’ were disappointed, no negotiations ever occurred, and taxpayers’ were forced to accept a settlement of a lawsuit filed by the University against the City over the creation of the NEEHD, in which they claimed animosity. The Fair Share Action Committee vehemently opposed the Consent Decree.

            On April 11, 2006 Northwestern University was just completing the purchase of 1945 Orrington Ave., a single-family residence that is located both in the Northeast Evanston Historic District and the T-1 zone, and subject to the Consent Decree that was entered into on February 17, 2004. Certainly The University was well aware of their plan to purchase the property on March 20, 2006, the date of the most recent NU/City Committee (at the time). I remain that this is a clear violation of the Consent Decree – both the letter and the spirit of its intention (to foster future working relations around land use and acquisition within the District). However, this was the day that the Mayor chose to thank the University for what she called its “generous contribution of $350,000.”

            The facts in this matter are very different. 1800 Sherman Avenue is located in the downtown TIF 2 District. The TIF district was created by the joint efforts of the City and the University to develop the Research Park. In order to accomplish the development of the TIF District, it was necessary for the City to issue $31,100,000 in General Obligation bonds. The City relied upon the joint effort and commitments of the University. The City has expended millions of dollars and has incurred major obligations based upon the premise that all properties within the TIF District would remain on the tax rolls. Presently, there is $27,300,000 in bonds still outstanding. These bonds are to be retired by the incremental revenues from the TIF District. The meager “contributions” of $350,000 annually for three years is woefully inadequate to pay the outstanding amount.

            It is rather disingenuous for the city council to act as a public relations arm for the University. Furthermore, it is entirely inappropriate to send out a “Newsflash” on the City’s taxpayer supported website announcing the “generous contribution” made by the University, on the very day that yet another piece of property was removed from the tax rolls. Members of the city council and the Mayor have the responsibility to protect the tax base, and the interests of the citizens of Evanston are not being tended to.

            The “opinion” referred to at the June 22nd meeting remains to be seen. My understanding is that the “memo” was issued by Herb Hill, not Jack Siegel. The idea that it is now being withheld by the city manager is unfortunate and untenable.

            Mimi Peterson

  3. Promises and requests
    Hi Dave,
    A couple of points in response to your last post, and a suggestion …

    First, I was not promised a copy of the Siegel opinion. I asked the city legal department to provide a copy.
    I just learned from Ellen Szymanski of the legal department that the city manager has decided not to release the document, citing an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act for legal opinions.
    I’m disappointed that they decided to handle it that way, but I can see why the exemption exists.

    Second, as I wrote in the initial story, my notes reflect that Aldermen Wollin and Tisdahl agreed at the NU/City Committee meeting on the substance of Siegel’s opinion. Your claims that only Alderman Wollin is of that view are, to the best of my knowledge, incorrect.

    It seems to me the key issue is whether, in the wake of whatever it was Siegel told them, any aldermen now have the same burning desire to challenge the university on land purchases that several of them voiced when the issue was new. If you can identify any aldermen who still feel that way, I’d be much obliged.

    — Bill

  4. Secrecy and civility
    Bill: Alderman Wollin and the City Manager can’t have it both ways; it is an elemental legal principle that Mr. Siegel’s opinion is either confidential or it is not. Since Alderman Wollin revealed it at the June 22 meeting, it is not confidential. The law simply does not allow someone to claim they have a legal opinion supporting their position and them withhold that opinion from proper disclosure. For the City Manager to withhold Mr. Siegel’s opinion is probably without a sound legal basis and certainly is unfair to the citizens of Evanston now that Alderman Wollin has put it “at issue” and you have publicized it. (By the way, I never claimed Alderman Wollin’s account was “only” hers, but if Alderman Tisdahl did concur about the opinion, that merely underscores my point — the opinion cannot be “confidential” if not one but two aldermen have disclosed it.)

    As for the existence of a “burning interest” in this issue, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can tell you that as a community representative member on the NU/City Committee I have a burning interest in seeing that the University and the City comply with their legal obligations under the Consent Decree. I think it undermines the interests of the community to have an Alderman (or two) selectively disclose an unsubstantiated account of the Corporation Counsel’s legal opinion about the scope of the Decree, which is then publicized as fact, without public recourse to the true content of the opinion.

    Finally, on the subject of civility, it is important not to confuse assertiveness with incivility. (Similarly, misinformation is not a “resource.”) NU and Alderman Wollin have made it quite clear that they will do all in their power to limit the effectiveness of the NU/City Committee to the narrowest scope they can achieve. As the only member of the committee with any record of advocacy on behalf of NU’s taxpaying neighbors, my obligation is to assert the rights of the community under the Consent Decree as vigorously as is necessary to achieve compliance on the part of NU and the City. Adam, I don’t know if you were at the June 22 meeting, but we had a very civil discussion there. Unfortunately, we (the community members) had to vigorously fight our own Alderman, the City Manager and NU earlier this year just to keep the Committee functioning at all. We will continue that fight, in a civil but assertive manner, as long need be.

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