Evanston’s Citizen Ethics Board last week held off acting on an ethics complaint lodged against Alderman Mark Tendam until Aug. 13.
Some of the alderman’s supporters are incensed it has gone this far and have brought another alderman into the debate. Residents Nick Agnew and Clare Kelly lodged the complaint against Tendam for his acceptance of a $1,000 contribution from James Pritzker, the developer who at the time was applying for zoning relief from the city to operate a bed and breakfast. State Board of Elections records show Tendam received a $1,000 contribution from J.N. Pritzker, on April 17, eight days after Tendam handily defeated opponent Mark Sloane in the 6th Ward race.
He said he saw “nothing illegal or unethical about the contribution,” noting that he had supported Pritzker’s request for another bed and breakfast last year. Agnew and Kelly first called on Tendam in public to recuse himself from voting on the issue, and brought their concern to Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, who later supported Tendam’s right to vote.
Agnew said July 30 that the complaint “is not personal.” Rather, “it has to do with how the Election Code is written,” he said.
The city’s Ethics Code prohibits the solicitation and acceptance of grants that would “to a reasonable person, appear to impair the officers or employees independence of judgment or action in the performance of official duties.”
One exception, however, “is any contribution that is lawfully made under the Election Code.”
Tendam’s attorney, in a filing, maintained that the complaint should be dismissed on the merits, because of the election code.
The motion to dismiss also cited Tendam’s council colleague, Judy Fiske, 1st Ward alderman, as someone who could be accused of the same ethical lapse, under the citizens’ challenge.
Fiske voted against Pritzker’s bid for a bed and breakfast, the motion to dismiss noted. Citing State Board of Election records, the filing noted that close supporter David Reynolds, the owner of the Homestead Hotel, which would be competing for the same business as the B&B, made six contributions to Fiske’s campaign committee over the past eight years, amounting to $1,000.
“Should Alderman Fiske have recused herself from any votes which would advance the interest of Mr. Reynolds?” the filing asked.
Fiske, asked about the comparison, said the cases weren’t the same.
“David Reynolds has never had an application for zoning relief pending before the City Council,” she responded. “If he had, I would have returned his contribution.”
Further, she said Reynolds and his wife Holly live in the First Ward and have been involved in many issues affecting the lakefront.
“Pritzker’s B&B affected them directly as homeowners, not as hoteliers,” she maintained.
She noted that during her recent campaign she had called on her opponent Ed Tivador to return a $1,000 contribution he received from Pritzker who then had two zoning cases pending before the city.
“Even if not strictly illegal, it certainly is unethical to accept a campaign contribution from a person or entity seeking zoning relief from the city council,” she maintained. “To my way of thinking, accepting money from those sources is not what Evanstonians expect from their elected officials.”
Michael Dorf, attorney for Tendam, said his client was not attacking Fiske, suggesting that she “was in thrall to Reynolds,” who has been outspoken about city assistance to a competitor, The Margarita, in a major rehab of that residential hotel. Rather, he said he was citing her case to show “how ridiculous this is.”
In another case, he noted that Fiske’s committee shows a contribution from a contributor identified as an “executive” with the Chicago Transit Authority.
“Does such a contribution indicate that Alderman Fiske is in thrall to the CTA and that she should recuse herself from any votes concerning the Purple Line?” he asked. “The answer is ‘of course not,’ which is why the law has been written in a way that clearly and without question mandates the dismissal of claimants’ complaint.”
At the Ethics Board hearing Tuesday, other Tendam supporters, including his life partner and husband, Neal Moglin, called the on the board to dismiss the complaint.
Moglin didn’t buy that Agnew and Kelly were trying to address a loophole in the city’s ethics code.
He called their action a “mean-spirited political ploy that should never have been filed.”
Virginia Mann, another Tendam backer and onetime aldermanic candidate, maintained such complaints could discourage people from taking an activist approach in the community, through their backing of candidates who support their cause.
“We’re an open democracy here, and this feels like a very unopen Democracy,’’ she told board members. “Mr. Pritzker has a right just like anyone else to make a financial contribution to an elected official."
"It was as recorded. It was all very open,” she said.
Before filing, Agnew and Kelly said they sent a letter to the mayor and Tendam, asking that ethical protocol be followed on the B&B vote “and we got no response,’’ they said, except for what they called "a mean-spirited response from Alderman Ann Rainey."
They then went to the City Council and tried again and we told to go to the Board of Ethics and file a complaint, Agnew said.
Agnew said he respects Tendam and has a lot of friends who support the alderman; however, with development now happening in Evanston, with potential impact, he said “we’re really in a gray zone when you have aldermen voting,” in such situations.
Moglin, an attorney, though, charged the idea that you can accuse somebody with no basis under the guise of ethics when the facts are known, “is wrong,” doing damage in this case.
Both sides are expected to present more arguments at the Ethics Board meeting, called for 7:30 p.m., August 13, at the civic center, 2100 N. Ridge Ave.