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Council: Reform ‘weaponized’ ethics hearing system

Evanston aldermen directed city staff Monday night to develop a proposal to replace the city's appointed Board of Ethics with a hearing officer to review ethics disputes.

Steve Hagerty.

Evanston aldermen directed city staff Monday night to develop a proposal to replace the city’s appointed Board of Ethics with a hearing officer to review ethics disputes.

Mayor Steve Hagerty said the change is needed because the ethics board “has been politicized and weaponized over the last four years.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, suggested the shift to having a licensed attorney act as a hearing office to adjudicate ethics complaint. Wynne said the current system has the appointed board members “frequently with no legal training” put into what amounts to “a political circus.”

A hearing officer, she said, “would provide an arms-length, well trained review” of the issues and would eliminate the need for the outside counsel now hired to advise the ethics board.

In some respects the system would be similar to the administrative adjudication process that the city has used for years to deal with parking tickets, housing code violations and similar issues where the city contracts with an outside attorney to serve as a hearing officer handling cases.

A staff report presented at the meeting showed the city has spent nearly $32,000 on legal fees to defend elected officials against a half dozen ethics complaints over the past four years and nearly $31,000 on outside counsel fees for an attorney to advise the ethics board just in the last year.

Alexandra Ruggie, an assistant city attorney, said those figures don’t include a substantial amount of time spent by the city’s in-house legal staff providing administrative support to the Board of Ethics.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said he supported Wynne’s proposal. “It’s really disheartening” to look at the cost of the ethics hearings after “a very aggressive budget season” and consider how those funds could have been better used, Braithwaite said.

“I think it would be really reasonable for us to find a new way of administering this at less cost to taxpayers,” he added.

Robin Rue Simmons

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, said in addition to the loss of city staff productivity, there are opportunity cost losses for those who have to appear at lengthy ethics board hearings.

“I’ve had time loss, which is money, how I feed my family, and employers have been involved,” Rue Simmons added.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said he too would support revising the adjudication process for ethics complaints. “If we can find a way to make it more functional and less time-consuming, it would have more appeal to all participants,” he said.

The aldermen also discussed an issue raised by city staff of whether the city should stop paying for attorneys hired by elected officials to defend them against ethics complaints but decided to not more forward with that, or with a suggestion that the losing side in an ethics case should have to pay the winner’s legal fees.

“If we’re going to talk about fee shifting, we’d have to have that conversation very carefully,” Wilson said. “We don’t want to create a situation where a fear about costs is locking legitimate concerns out of the system.”

The City Council late last year completed a rewrite of the city’s Code of Ethics. All the cases heard by the board in the past four years were brought under the provisions of the old ethics code.

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Who should pay the cost of ethics cases? (12/6/20)

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