New city special council trains City Council members on Code of Ethics

The City Council held a special meeting on Monday afternoon to receive its first ethics training from the city’s new special ethics complaints council, which was commissioned in December 2021.

Beginning in 2020, an annual ethics training is mandated by city code for all elected officials and employees of the City of Evanston. Steven Elrod, founding partner of the firm Elrod Friedman LLP, led the session and was joined by two of his attorneys Marcus Martinez and Brooke Lenneman.

“In many cases, Evanston, in adopting its ethics regulation, exceeded the requirements of state law,” said Elrod. “Evanston has one of the strongest ethical standards on the books of any county I know of, and I represent many different cities in the Chicago suburbs.”

The packed presentation and discussion, under some pressure from a 5:15 pm shutdown, covered a variety of topics: prohibited political activities, banning state and city gifts, conflicts of interest and abuses of power, as well as how ethics complaints are investigated and judged. Council members have had a number of questions early on about banning Council members from engaging in any political activity or campaigning during “compensated time” or when engaged in official city business in their role as elected officials.

Council members Jonathan Nieuwsma (fourth ward) and Melissa Wynne (third ward) asked if they were allowed to campaign for or against a city referendum, like the recently passed ranked choice voting referendum council, in places like ward meetings or guest city halls. Elrod responded that while they could campaign on state-level issues, the city code is much stricter against elected officials who campaign on city issues, even off city property.

“It’s hard, according to your code, to really distinguish when a council member is not conducting city business when they’re talking about a referendum that’s on the ballot,” said Elrod.

The group also provided clarity on how to address potential conflicts of interest, particularly in approving contracts with Northwestern University, where Ninth Ward Council Member Juan Geracaris and former Second Ward Council Member Peter Braithwaite are employees. Elrod warned Geracaris that, short of a vote that “may specifically benefit him or his department,” he would not be obliged to refuse.

In the end, First Wing Council member Clare Kelly asked about the role the Citizens Ethics Council still plays in deciding ethics complaints after the system was restructured in September 2021. Lenneman said the council’s role was only review and make a final decision on the administrative hearing decision, judged by municipal employees and investigated by the special prosecutor.

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