Evanston’s Board of Ethics Tuesday night rejected three claims of violations of the city’s ethics code made against incumbent aldermen and an aldermanic candidate, affirmed one and postponed action on two others.

The board said that the distribution of a candidate endorsement message through the city’s email system violated the ethics code and called for improved staff training to avoid the problem in the future.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said the message went out during a transition of the city’s email system from Microsoft Outlook to Google Mail. She said she was confused about the operation of the new system and asked city staff for help in locating a private list of email contacts she used to send messages to her supporters.

Instead of having the endorsement message sent to that list from her private email account, Holmes said, the staff created a much larger list — apparently of everyone she had ever exchanged email with on the city system — and ended up sending out the endorsement message to that list using the city’s distribution system.

Ethics Board members Vincent Thomas, Mark Shelton, Karena Bierman, Jennifer Billingsley and Kelda Harris-Harty.

The board said a complaint that some aldermen and the mayor had violated the ethics code by endorsing Robin Rue, the winning candidate in the 5th Ward aldermanic race, was “without merit.”

Robin Rue, speaking to the ethics panel.

It rejected a claim that Rue had violated the ethics code by sitting on the Aldermanic Compensation Committee.

And it rejected a claim that the registration status with the state of Rue’s former business, Signature Construction Services Inc., violated the ethics code.

Betty Sue Ester, reading from her complaint at the ethics board meeting.

All four of these charges were contained in a complaint filed by Betty Sue Ester, a 5th Ward resident who finished fourth in a five candidate race for alderman in 2005 in which Holmes was first elected to the City Council. Another 5th Ward resident, Madelyn Ducre, had filed a separate complaint indicating support for Ester’s charges. 

The board said it would convene again at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 2, to discuss a fifth issue raised by Ester, whether Rue’s involvement with the Sunshine Enterprises entrepreneurial training program partially funded by the city represented a conflict of interest.

Misty Witenberg addressing the ethics board.

Also scheduled for further review at that meeting, a complaint from 5th Ward aldermanic candidate Misty Witenberg that Holmes violated the ethics code by forwarding email messages Witenberg sent her to Janet Alexander Davis, a leader of WEST, the neighborhood group Holmes had established to help organize activities in the ward. Davis was supporting Rue in the election.

The board was meeting at full strength Tuesday for the first time in months after two new members were appointed by the City Council last week and a third member was reappointed to an additional term.

The board was unable to address the complaints about the 5th Ward election at a scheduled meeting in March because it lacked a quorum after one member was unable to attend the meeting.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Ethics Panel, etc……

    Just curious….does the mayor appoint the board members?   Are there limits to the number of years that board members can be on boards?  Thanks

    1. Selection of ethics board members

      Hi Verna,

      As with other city boards, committees and commissions, the ethics board members are appointed by the mayor, subject to approval by the City Council.

      Board of Ethics members serve three year terms and are limited to two terms.

      — Bill

  2. Lot of insider stuff in Evanston politics

    These complaints are interesting.

    1) Rue who just won the 5th Ward Alderman’s race sat on the Mayor’s Aldermanic Compensation Committee, which last June gave elected officials, including aldermen, a 23 percent pay raise. Rue announced her candidacy in October. I wonder if Rue was making noise about a run for alderman before her appointment to the committee. 

    2) Rue’s Sunshine Enterprises entrepreneurial training program is partially funded by the city. So how does Rue handle this as alderman? A few years ago, the Ethics Board dismissed complaints that then Alderman Mark Tendam after winning an aldermanic race violated an ethics rule for accepting a campaign donation from Col. Pritzker who at the time was negotating to buy the Harley Clarke mansion and was waiting on a zoning change request for one of his bed and breakfasts. The Ethics Board did say it would consider amending the Code of Ethics to prevent any candidate for the office of mayor or city council from receiving campaign contributions from people or entities associated with pending zoning relief applications. As of now, not sure that happened.

    3) As for Holmes, I can understand the mistake of sending a mass email under a new a computer system but I am curious how she defends forwarding Witenberg’s email to a supporter of Witenberg’s opponent. 

    There seems to be a lot of insider stuff going on in Evanston.

    1. The ethics complaints

      Hi Al,

      You might want to read our initial stories on Witenberg’s complaint and Ester’s complaint for some additional background.

      There’s a certain amount of irony in that Witenberg bases her complaint on having obtained Holmes’ emails through a Freedom of Information Act request — which certainly suggests that email you send an alderman is typically NOT considered confidential information that must be protected from disclosure.

      It was fairly obvious that Rue was contemplating a run for alderman when she sat on the compensation committee. But there doesn’t appear to be anything in the rules to bar a person in that position from being on that committee. And the sitting aldermen were free to overrule the committee’s recommendation and adopt whatever pay scale for the next City Council they chose.

      Rue spoke about how she plans to handle the Sunshine Enterprises issue in this story.

      — Bill

      1. Emails

        Hi Bill,

        Just to clarify, the basis of my complaint is not that the emails were disclosed, but rather the manner and purpose for which those emails—along with information gathered from sources other than my emails—were disclosed.

        I also did not submit a FOIA request until a local organization called and alerted me to the issue, I inquired directly about the extent and purpose of the disclosure, and then only after I found out that response I received was not accurate. I worked to resolve the situation with both the alderman and the mayor prior to and following my FOIA request, and the sole intent of my request was to find out how much of my information had been disclosed for non-city purposes, as it included information that affected my family.

        1. Macht nichts

          Hi Misty,

          Macht nichts … a nice German expression … comes to mind. Means “does not matter.” If the email was not confidential city information to start with — the purpose for which it was disclosed is irrelevant. And further, one can just as easily argue that it was shared in an effort to resolve the conflict as to argue that it was shared to give one party some sort of political advantage. So bad motive would be difficult to prove.

          But that’s just my take. We’ll see what the ethics board thinks about it next month.

          — Bill

          1. Purpose of purpose

            Yikes Bill. I wasn’t intending to dispute your views, but your comment is so fundamentally incorrect, I’m not certain that you’re not trying to be ironic now.

            Whether or not you agree with the substance of any of the complaints, it would be difficult to argue your case that purpose of an act is irrelevant. The city’s Code of Ethics inherently—and explicitly in many cases—cites purpose as the most relevant factor in determining ethics violations of any act when done in the capacity of one’s role as a city official, and it specifically includes the use of city property such as government email accounts. Only in one sub-subset of the outline is that exclusive to the disclosure of confidential information. In adhering to the code, the purpose of conducting any city affairs can’t:

            Allow “prejudice, favoritism or the opportunity for personal gain to influence their decisions or actions or to interfere with serving the public interest.”

            “Grant or make available to any citizen any consideration, treatment, advantage or favor beyond that which is available to every other citizen.”

            “Use the prestige, power or influence of his/her office or employment to engage in any transaction which is, or would to a reasonable person appear to be, in conflict or incompatible with the proper discharge of his/her official duties, or which impairs, or would to a reasonable person appear to impair, the officer’s or employee’s independence of judgment or action in the performance of official duties.”

            Constitute “informal lobbying on behalf of any private person or interests.”

            To “use or permit the use of any person, funds, or property under his/her official control, direction, or custody, or of any City funds or property, for a purpose which is, or to a reasonable person would appear to be, for a nonCity purpose.”

            To “perform any prohibited political activity during any compensated time.” Prohibited political activity includes “Managing or working on a campaign for electives office”

            To “use any property or resources of the City in connection with any prohibited political activity.”

            To “use the prestige of his/her position on behalf of any political party or for any political purpose.”

            Additionally, the Ethics Code specifies that “these rules are to be construed liberally to ensure that public officials and employees act with the utmost care and take all necessary steps to avoid actual conflicts of interest that would interfere with their ability to perform their official duties independently and impartially, as well as conduct that would to a reasonable person appear to create such conflicts of interest.” Conflicts of interests include “all individuals, partnerships, corporations and other entities except for the City, its boards, commissions, officers and employees.”

            So whether or not you personally agree with what constitutes a provisional violation, or what your take is on what would be hard or not hard to argue, I hope you’re willing to open up your reporting to a more comprehensive overview of what we should expect of our city officials.

      2. Doesn’t pass my smell test

        Hi Bill,

        As it stands now, one can assume the Evanston Ethics Committee is OK with someone entertaining a run for office to be appointed on the Mayor’s Compensation Committee and approving a pay raise for elected officials.

        And one can assume the Ethics Committee is OK that someone who has pending business with the city such as a zoning request or a contract offer to purchase city owned property can give a campaign donation to an alderman.

        It doesn’t pass my smell test. But what do I know. I sit in the peanut gallery.

  3. Just Can’t Accept
    The Very Fact that they just can’t accept the decision of the ethics committee, I believe shows how well they wouldn’t have been right for the community. It clearly stated that there was NO VIOLATION OF ETHICS or CONFLICTS OF INTEREST.Maybe there are deeper underlying issues here other than complaints. Instead of attempting to find fault, maybe it would be more advisable to attempt to work for the betterment of the community,but then again they wouldn’t understand that because as stated before they don’t understand the community.

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