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City’s new special counsel trains City Council members on Code of Ethics

City Council held a special meeting Monday afternoon to receive their first ethics training from the city’s new special counsel for ethics complaints, who was retained in December 2021.

Since 2020, an annual ethics training has been mandated by city code for all Evanston’s elected officials and city staff. Steven Elrod, founding partner of the firm Elrod Friedman LLP, led the session and was joined by two of his firms attorneys Marcus Martinez and Brooke Lenneman.

“In many instances, Evanston, in adopting its ethics ordinance, exceeded the requirements of state law,” Elrod said. “Evanston has one of the strongest ethics ordinances on the books of any municipality that I’m aware of, and I represent many different towns in the Chicago suburban area.”

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

Council members Jonathan Nieuwsma (Fourth Ward) and Melissa Wynne (Third Ward) asked whether they were allowed to campaign for or against a city referendum, such as the ranked-choice voting referendum council recently approved, at venues such as ward meetings or invitational town hello Elrod answered that while they could possibly campaign on state-level issues, city code is far stricter against elected officials campaigning for city issues, even off of city property.

“It’s hard, under your code, to truly distinguish when a Council member is not conducting city business when they’re talking about a referendum that is on a ballot,” Elrod said

The group also provided clarity on how to treat possible conflicts of interest, particularly in approving contracts with Northwestern University, where both Ninth Ward Council member Juan Geracaris and former Second Ward Council member Peter Braithwaite are employed. Elrod advised Geracaris that other than on a vote that “may benefit you specifically or your department,” he would not be required to recuse himself.

Toward the end, First Ward Council member Clare Kelly asked about what role the citizen Board of Ethics still plays in ruling on ethics complaints following the system’s restructuring in Sept. 2021. Lenneman said the board’s role was only to review and make a final decision on the ruling of an administrative hearing, adjudicated by city staff and investigated by the special counsel.

Since Elrod and the firm were appointed special counsel in Dec. 2021, they have received “five or six formal complaints,” Lenneman said. “We have not found that there was cause to move forward with (an administrative) hearing on them.”

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