The five incoming members of Evanston’s City Council got a lesson in how city government is supposed to work Monday.

The five incoming members of Evanston’s City Council got a lesson in how city government is supposed to work Monday.

At an orientation meeting, retiring four-term Mayor Lorraine Morton read from a handbook for council-manager governments and told the aldermen that they get to determine city policy and hire and fire the city manager.

But she said the aldermen should generally direct questions about how the policies are being implemented to the city manager — rather than contacting individual employees or even department heads.

Interim City Manager Rolanda Russell modified that advice slightly later in the meeting, saying that if aldermen have a simple request for information — “say you want to know from the fire chief what time an event occurs” — they could call the department head and ask directly.

But she urged them to funnel constituent requests for the city to take action on an issue through Joseph McRae, the assistant to the city manager, who’s set up a tracking system for such requests. McRae, she said, can coordinate a staff response to aldermanic questions and get an answer within 24 hours.

Russell noted that before recent city staff reductions there were two assistants to the manager to handle such requests and she said McRae is working to streamline the system to make it easier to get prompt responses.

The aldermen-elect also received a briefing from Corporation Counsel Jack Siegel who said that, as a home-rule municipality under the 1970 state constitution, the city has power to regulate a wide range of activities without seeking approval from the state legislature.

But he added that under the state’s open meetings act any gathering of “a majority of a quorum” of members of the city council at which public business is discussed must be open to the public.

Siegel said that the mayor is included in determining a quorum for the council, so that with nine aldermen, a quorum would be six people, and therefore a majority of a quorum would be four.

Regarding the state’s freedom of information act, which he noted was the subject of a series of reports this week in the Chicago Tribune, Siegel said, “We don’t hide anything, unlike the city of Chicago.”

But he said preliminary staff reports, where no decision has been made, are exempt from disclosure under the act, unless they are cited at a public meeting.

Elke Tober-Purze, the interim first assistant corporation counsel, discussed the city’s code of ethics, which she said was one of the first in the state when it was adopted in 1978.

The code bars accepting gifts valued at more than $75 and food valued at more than $100, which led some current and incoming council members to question how they should handle invitations to attend fundraising events where their tickets were marked “complimentary.”

Tober-Purze said if the aldermen wanted clarification about that they could ask the city’s ethics board to issue an advisory opinion.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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