Newly released minutes of the City Council’s private meeting last March about the proposed downtown tower show the developers sought to have the city acquire the Fountain Square building and have the developers tear it down and build an expanded public plaza on the site.

The discussion of land acquisition by the city appears to give the council legal grounds to hold the meeting in private since the state open meetings act provides that closed sessions may be held to discuss “the purchase or lease of real property for the use of the public body, including meetings held for the purpose of discussing whether a particular parcel should be acquired.”

During a discussion among themselves with the developers out of the room, many of the aldermen voiced support for the concept of the tower, but said they didn’t want to collaborate on the project with the developers.

Alderman Steve Bernstein is quoted in the minutes as saying “he would never vote to co-sponsor the project” and that he has a philosophical aversion to using the city’s eminent domain power to forcibly acquire the Fountain Square building, although he did favor the idea of the city acquiring the building and expanding the plaza.

Aldermen Lionel Jean-Baptiste, Cheryl Wollin and Ann Rainey are also quoted in the minutes as opposing any joint venture with the developers to expand and rebuild Fountain Square — saying they believed the city should tackle that project itself, using additional tax revenue generated by the tower project.

But Alderman Melissa Wynne is quoted in the minutes as suggesting it would be a good idea to promote the idea that the tower could help pay for redeveloping Fountain Square. “A tall building alone without the plaza would draw thousands of people and be criticized, whereas a tall building with the plaza would be different,” the minutes quote her as saying.

A little over two months after the private meeting, Wynne told her Third Ward constitutents at a public meeting that she was adamantly opposed to the tower plan, becoming the first and apparently the only alderman so far to publicly oppose the project.

When developers Tim Anderson and James Klutznick returned to the session, Alderman Edmund Moran told them “the notion of being a co-applicant was soundly rejected” but that overall there were positive feelings about the project among the council members.

The developers then dropped the collaboration plan and a month later announced plans for the project now working its way through the city’s review process.

The full minutes of the closed meeting are available as an attachment below.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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10 Comments

  1. How Do You Think Council Will Vote on the Tower?

    The minutes of the closed meeting in March 2007 is only part of the story. You have to look at them in context:

    1. Council invites/encourages a development by Kutznick/Anderson on March 27, 2007. Council, staff and developers meet behind closed doors for over two hours. The great majority of the meeting is devoted to talking about a private development by Klutnick/Anderson. The developers want to partner with the City. There is passing mention of someone acquiring and tearing down the Fountain Square Building.

    2. The discusion of the private development by Klutznick/Anderson constituted a violation of the Open Meetings Act, according to the Office of the Illinois General. Generously, perhaps 10% of the meeting was properly held in closed session.

    3. The minutes of the closed meeting make it clear that Council and staff encouraged Klutznick/Anderson to proceed with their plans to develop the “iconic” tower. The height of the tower is explicitly discussed at the meeting. The Washington Monument is mentioned

    4. Not surprisingly, having expressed in March that
    they were thrilled with the proposed Tower, Council ignores the legal advice of Corporation Counsel in June and exempts the Tower from the downtown moratorium, citing the mythical “pipeline.”

    5. The charade of public input into the already
    Tower begins at the Plan Commission. So far about 12 hours of citizen comment has occured. Many more hours have been spent by the Plan Commissioners (unpaid volunteers).

    6. Whether the Commission votes in December to
    recommend the Tower to Council or not, IT DOESN’T MATTER. In the closed meeting on March 27, 2007–most of which was illegally held–Council already indicated that it embraced the project.

    8. Based on the above, what’s your prediction as
    to the way Council will vote if and when the Tower comes before them? Since Council invited Klutznick and Anderson in and encouraged them to propose the Tower, do you think their vote is anything but foreordained?

    As is becoming the norm in Evanston, there’s once again a veneer of a public process overlaying a decision, made in secret, reached long ago. The only difference here is that the foreordained decision, made in the shadow, is now exposed through the release of the minutes.

    Read the minutes of the closed meeting. Read Section 2(c)(5) of the Open Meetings Act. How do you think Council will vote on the Tower?

    1. Strange view of political process
      Hi Barb,

      Your comments seem to be premised on a theory that aldermen should have no opinion about what’s best for the city and that, if they should be stained with an opinion, they should do nothing to act on it.

      At the very least you seem to have confused a legislative body with a judicial body.

      We elect lawmakers to represent us. That doesn’t mean they will always share our ideas or vote our opinions. We can scream about it, try to persuade them to change their minds and work to replace them at the next election. But they are fully entitled to have their own policy goals and seek to have those goals carried out.

      As for holding the meeting with the developers in secret, my take is that it was legal, but perhaps unwise.

      Legal, because it appears to me to clearly fall within an open meetings act exception. (And I don’t see how they could intelligently discuss partnering with the developers on the plaza expansion project without also discussing what it was the developers had in mind for the rest of the block.)

      Perhaps unwise for two reasons.

      First, the goal of the open meetings act exception is to permit cities to save the taxpayers money by not revealing to potential sellers just how hot they are to acquire their land — to avoid jacking up the acquisition cost for the property.

      Since Ted Mavrakis already knew developers were hot to acquire the Fountain Square building, I’m not convinced there was any real negotiating advantage to be lost.

      Of course, reasonable people can differ about that. And if the aldermen had met in public and decided to collaborate on the venture with the developer, I’m sure some citizens of our fair city would be shouting that their stupid decision to meet in public was costing the taxpayers millions in added acquisition costs for the expanded plaza.

      Second, any time there’s a secret meeting it provides fodder for people to imagine the worst. There is a real, if intangible, cost to the quality of public debate when the council provides those inclined to imagine the worst with a hook to hang their conspiracy theories on.

      How will the aldermen actually vote on the tower? Well, I guess that depends on whose arguments in the debate over the tower they find more persuasive. Will the fact that they had opinions of their own when the debate began have an impact on the outcome? Why of course. That’s always a factor.

      — Bill

      1. How economic development works
        Ms. Rakley also seems to have a rather naïve view of the role of City of Evanston leaders (both elected and staff) in economic development. If City staff or an alderman “invited” (which they didn’t in this case, the developer made the request of the City) an investor, architect, or developer to present a proposed project in Evanston, Ms. Rakley would have us believe that this kind of activity is somehow inappropriate or even conspiratorial.

        The fact is, cities all over the globe invite and encourage investors, architects, and developers; as well as events, museums, sports teams, associations, and even circuses to locate or expand in their communities. Many of those efforts can result in outstanding successes (think Bilbao, Spain or Milwaukee and their commissioning of art museums) but sometimes, admittedly, even with the best of intentions, the result is not what one might have hoped for (think Los Angeles Convention Center, which even Mayor Villaraigosa calls a “white elephant”). Economic development is hard and requires a commitment of resources, a focus, and some level of risk-taking.

        In Ms. Rakley’s narrow world of judicial review, however, she seems to suggest Evanston staff and aldermen should sit passively and wait for business to come to Evanston. That, I contend, would be a foolish disservice to Evanston residents and businesses — the taxpayers of our city.

        Fortunately, in Evanston, while we have not opened development offices overseas (as Illinois does with your tax dollars in places like Mexico, Israel, South Africa and China) or created a formal economic development services organization (as they have in Ann Arbor), both the local public, private, and institutional sectors have collaborated and continue to work closely to attract, retain, and assist with the expansion of Evanston businesses.

        The Evanston Chamber of Commerce, City officials (both elected and staff) and other business groups and organizations are constantly discussing business development ideas, plans, and physical changes with potential and existing Evanston businesses, developers, architects, event planners, museums, and sports teams (no circuses, as of yet). And make no mistake about it, many of those communications are held in forums which are private.

        You see, Ms. Rakley, I don’t believe Evanston should or can afford to sit still. To be competitive, to keep tax dollars coming in, to generate new jobs for our children, to attract and retain our talent pool, and to keep and expand a revenue stream to pay for the educational and social services that are so valued by our citizens, I know Evanston must be constantly innovating and looking for the next business opportunity.

        In truth, compared to many cities our size, our elected leaders and City staff are engaged in a rather minimal amount of economic development activities. Many cities not only invite new business opportunities, they will travel thousands of miles (think China trade missions) with mayor and business leaders in tow, to woo jobs, capital flows, and wealth generation to their community.

        I am not suggesting Mayor Morton or your alderman should jump on the next plane to Shanghai. What I am advising, however, is that inviting new development proposals to Evanston by those engaged in economic development is not only an appropriate role, it is a most responsible action for our leaders concerned with the future quality of life and work in this city. And sometimes, those meetings and discussions will need to be private because they involve proprietary information, private land sales, or competing proposals, to name a few.

        When it comes to economic development meetings governed by the Ilinois Open Meetings Act, Evanston’s elected officials will have to continue to make judgments based on their (and the Corporation Counsel’s) interpretation of the law. As with much of our law, there is some gray matter. Most of the time Evanston gets it right but there will be occasions, as there was here, when the Attorney General’s opinion may differ with that of Evanston’s wise legal counsel. That is the price we pay for writing ambiguity into the law but it is also why we have a judicial check.

        Yet, one must also remember that businesses and investors don’t operate on the judicial stage, which Ms. Rakely so enjoys. Voicing opinion about a proposal, encouraging changes in plans through cordial dialogue, and frank exchange (which is really what transpired in the closed session) is part of most development processes.

        Constructive collaboration should never be confused with conspiracy and is quite necessary to advance any city.

  2. Private meetings for private parties not public officials
    Jonathan as a private group you have every right to have private meetings. The city council does not have that right – to hold private meetings with developers that do not clearly meet the letter of the law. Individual council members could meet with a developer if they desired – and discuss things that they want –

    We citizens have the right to know – that when the council mets as a group to discuss things that it is not behind closed doors. Yes they are allowed to discuss certain matters behind close doors – but this is very limited.

    When meetings occur and citizens have to ask the state to come in and open them up, it is clear that the council is not exercising good judgement. Jonathan this has happen more than once. do not down play the fact this is the only time. Frankly in talking to someone who recently moved here from Highland Park he asked if council members were on the take – since he continues to wonder what is going on here. Knowing many of them for years I believe they just continue to exercise very poor judgement.

    I am not all that impress with our council ability to get us the best value for our tax dollars. It is beginning to appear to me that they are giving developers our money as a incentitive for the development here with small pay backs. The developers just continue to outsmart them.

    I am very interested to understand why the auditor in his review of the city finanical statement maded the comment the Sherman ave garage had problems. I was at a meeting where it had cost over runs of 3 million dollars and the city staff appeared not to honestly state the real reasons. Thus the city does not do well with development projects.

    I am not against the development or the growth of the downtown. I am concerned that the council is not using my tax dollars in a wise manner. I have no problem with more high income residents moving into the downtown and spending money here and additional building built.

    I am not with the group that wants to stop development here – I do not like ugly buildings or destruction of neighborhoods – development must be controled and density placed in the proper areas – which clearly is not always the case here.

    About a year ago at a 7th ward meeting one staff member claimed to me -that developement would not occur west of Greenbay in the neighborhood shopping district since I asked what it was zone since they claimed it was not practical for a developer to develop projects in the area- recently I am being told leases are not being renewed in the area. It appears the small neighborhood shopping district could be destroyed.

    Frankly people do not want the good things in town destroyed – with overdevelopment – change is Ok – out of control development with no real plan is not.

  3. Rather the Tower than the Process
    I would like to clarify that I would have had no problem WHATSOEVER with Council’s conduct with respect to the Tower if Council had met in open session with Klutznick/Anderson in March. The process surrounding the Tower is tainted, to my mind, because of the secrecy surrounding its inception. Had there been no violation of the Open Meetings Act–had Council met with Klutznick/Anderson in open session last March–the current taint to the process would not exist.
    It’s true that I would prefer not to see a skyscraper in the middle of Evanston’s downtown . . . but, personally, I’d rather have the skyscraper itself than the process surrounding it.

  4. Strange View of Political Process? Not really.
    Bill,

    Barb’s view of the political process is not strange at all. There are two widely held views about democratic representation – the trustee and the delegate perspective. You obviously believe that representatives should be trustees, in that we entrust them with making decisions for us. You are not the only one to hold such a view. However, the other competing view is the delegate perspective which holds that elected representatives should reflect the views of the community that elected them. So, Barb’s view of what aldermen should do is perfectly compatible with democratic theory. Often there isn’t a real clear distinction of how representatives make decisions since they often both decide on their own and reflect public opinion. Nevertheless, the delegate perspective is as widely held as the trustee and in fact many people see the trustee perspective as elitist.

    What concerns many of us, however, is that the decision on the Skyscraper and the new downtown plan are being considered under some sort of fast-track with very little information available to the residents. Most of us have no idea why high-rise development is being promoted. What is the rush? What is the economic crisis that is driving this? Are there other ways to get out of the crisis (if we are indeed in a crisis)? And, if there is an economic crisis, why trust those who put us in a crisis to get us out of it?

    The most democratic way in which to make a decisions that has the potential of changing the city’s character is to hold a binding referendum, but unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. So, while Evanston seems to pride itself as a modern, progressive city, the way it is handling this development issue appears to be more akin to the old smoke-filled room, closed-door variant of “democracy” typical of the 1950s — the classic old boy system.

    1. Political guidance
      Hi Peter,

      Your comment assumes that a clear majority of Evanstonians oppose the downtown tower and that therefore aldermen following the delegate theory you describe would vote against it.

      I would think you, as a political scientist, would want to base that conclusion on something more scientific than talking to your friends or counting the turnout at public hearings.

      Perhaps you would care to do a scientific poll of Evanstonians’ views about the tower? I’d be delighted to publish the results.

      I don’t have the resources to do such a poll, but when Evanston Now asked readers last spring what they thought — we ended up with roughly an even split between those who favored and opposed the tower concept.

      It would seem to me that under either a delegate or trustee theory, that leaves it up to the aldermen to exercise their own best judgment — since they can’t possibly please both sides.

      One other data point. Since the process of downtown high-rise development has been underway for roughly a decade and has been the focus of great debate throughout that period, I would think that the last aldermanic election might be taken as a rough proxy for residents’ views about whether the aldermen have been doing the right thing downtown.

      If you look at the results, you’ll see that vote margins for all the incumbent aldermen were quite impressive, although one obviously has to make some allowance for the advantages of incumbency.

      I also wonder about your “fast-track” comment. The tower project was publicly unveiled in April and has been the subject of extensive news coverage. The Plan Commission is now expected to vote on it in December. My guess would be that the City Council is unlikely to get to a final vote before February. How much more time than that do you think is required for full public debate?

      — Bill

  5. Reply to Bill
    Bill,

    I don’t know why you think I assume that most residents oppose the skyscraper. I don’t say this at all in my comment. Here is something that I wrote on another blog just today:

    “If the residents of Evanston have all the facts and they decide to accept high-rise development then I am fine with that. At the moment, however, we are light-years away from having all the facts and many of the people involved in this process are non-residents or the fellow travelers of non-residents.”

    I’m not sure whether or not residents support a skyscraper and more high-rises. My argument is that residents are for the most part being by-passed. And that residents have available to them only limited and often biased information. I’ve sent numerous emails to aldermen asking the following questions and have received no response (which suggests to me that they certainly see themselves as trustees and not delegates):

    1. Are we in a financial crisis that requires us to build high-rises?
    2. If we are in a crisis, who is at fault and why should we trust those at fault to get us out of it.
    3. What are our options to get out of the crisis and why aren’t we talking about these options?
    4. Why not hold a referendum on development (this would be better than a survey).

    You state that I as a political scientist am jumping to conclusions based on my discussions with just a few people (although you have assumed that conclusion, I imagine, because you know my position on the skyscraper). Well, if you are a journalist, don’t you want all residents of Evanston to be as informed as possible? Why are you criticizing people who are stating concerns about the skyscraper and high-rises in general?

    1. Fellow travelers?
      Hi Peter,

      What exactly do you mean in calling some Evanstonians “the fellow travelers of non-residents”?

      The phrase fellow traveler has an unsavory history of being used to smear persons the speaker doesn’t like as being associates of traitors.

      Surely you don’t mean to suggest that non-residents should be assumed to have ill intentions toward our fair city or that those among Evanston residents who associate with non-residents are somehow tainted? Or is that what you mean?
      — Bill

      1. Fellow Travellers
        Bill,

        You keep suggesting much deeper meaning into my comments than I intend. Fellow traveler simply means someone with like-minded goals. Since you wish to allude to its historical use, I believe the term achieved notoriety during the Cold War to smear those who were sympathetic toward communism — certainly not something that would describe developers!

        What I am suggesting is that residents of Evanston should be the ones who decide what happens to their city. Do you disagree?

        Why don’t we simply agree that we are on opposite sides of the issue?

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