Council suspends term limit to reappoint member of NU-City Committee Biss says in the future the city should follow the rule

By Bob Seidenberg

Rule 5.2 of the Rules and Organization of the City Council states that a board or commission appointee may be reappointed only once. It’s a rule rarely if ever noticed and frequently not followed, but it became the center of discussion at the Evanston City Council meeting Sept. 11.

Daniel Biss, who as mayor makes appointments, brought up the rule at the meeting in connection with his proposed appointment of David Schoenfeld to the Northwestern University-City Committee.

Schoenfeld has been a member of the committee for close to 20 years, well beyond the two-term limit mandated by the rule.

After much discussion, the council voted 4-1 with one abstention to confirm Schoenfeld’s reappointment.

David Schoenfeld (left) at a June 14 meeting of the Northwestern University-City Committee, with Julie Johnson (center) and First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly. Credit: Matt Simonette
In July, Schoenfeld, an attorney, filed an emergency injunction after he, fellow committee member Julie Johnson and First Ward Council member Clare Kelly learned that then-Evanston Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings had filed a motion that would modify a consent decree and allow Northwestern to remove a piece of property adjacent to Ryan Field and the university’s stadium project from the jurisdiction of the NU-City Committee.

“The University’s current strong disinclination to talk with its neighbors about the major changes it plans to bring to their neighborhood is not a reason to fundamentally change that consent decree,” Schoenfeld said in his filing, successfully challenging Cummings’ motion.

“Indeed, the scope of the Ryan Field project and the potential for serious disputes now make this the worst possible time for the court to weaken the consent decree,” he argued.

Customary to suspend rule

In discussion at the Sept. 11 council meeting, the mayor announced he would be suspending Rule 5, which stipulates that a board or commission member may be reappointed only once.

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“To be frank, when I took office, it was customary for reappointments to happen, essentially as staff initiatives without mayoral involvement at all,” he said. “And I think it was also customary for those reappointments to violate Rule 5.2 and for people to be appointed to numerous terms beyond what the term limit allows.”

In many instances, he suggested, “we were in a hurry to do reappointments – everyone was happy with the people on the committee or board or commission in question. And so when it was brought to my attention that we were sometimes violating that rule, I asked that we stop doing that.”

Schoenfeld’s reappointment was already in the pipeline at that point, and “I think it would be totally unnecessary and unhelpful to boot him from the committee,” the mayor said, “because of a rule that he wasn’t thinking about and I wasn’t thinking about as recently as we discussed reappointing him.”

Therefore, the mayor said, he was asking council members to approve a suspension of the rule “so that we can appoint him and he may continue serving the community.”

Biss told council members there may be one or two other reappointments similar to Schoenfeld’s already underway for which he would also request a rule suspension.
He suggested that in the future, the city would adhere to the rule and where suspensions of the rule would be sought, it would be so for a person “who ought to be serving for a duration beyond the two terms for some reason.”

In response, several council members proposed alternatives to suspending the rule around the appointment of Schoenfeld.

Perception of fairness

In discussion, Council Member Devon Reid (8th Ward) said he was uncomfortable with the mayor’s suggestion and argued the proper procedure would be to change the rule.

Reid said he didn’t know Schoenfeld and only heard his name for the first time in connection with the recent legal action challenging the city’s motion, “and obviously he was right about something.

“But my concern is just a perception of fairness,” he said. “There are people on all kinds of committees who add a lot of value to their committee and may want to be reappointed, and what are we going to tell them when they are not? ‘We don’t see you as worthy enough to violate the rule and suspend the rule for you?’”
Reid cited the Land Use Commission where “we’re just going to reappoint members and there have been calls for diversity.”

Council Member Eleanor Revelle (7th Ward) said she was sympathetic to Reid’s point. Noting Schoenfeld’s experience of 20 years, she said, “… some committees benefit from having a couple of residents who have a long history with the committee and the issues and so I’m quite happy to support Mr. Schoenfeld’s reappointment, but it is troubling too. I don’t know – it’s very strange.”

Important issue

Biss argued there are two factors in Schoenfeld’s reappointment that make the council’s vote on the issue important.

First, he was unaware of the term limit and offered to reappoint Schelnfeld, and “I don’t want to be in the position of making offers like that and walking away from them,” he said. “And that’s on me,” he told council members, “but it’s still what happened.”

Second, “Let’s just pull the sheet off the elephant [in the room],” he said. He noted there are “a lot of concerns about the committee right now,” referring to the focus on the group, empowered by a 2004 consent decree to work toward solutions on land use and zoning issues with University representatives.

“And I think that’s overblown, frankly, and I think that some of the concerns that people feel are very much unfounded, [but it] doesn’t change the fact those concerns are real. I think given those concerns are in the community right now, for us to then kind of boot from the committee – for technicalities that hadn’t been observed in the past – someone who’s central to all that would be poor from the standpoint of trying to establish a greater trust and collaboration with some people in the community right now.”

In short, he said, “I really just would hope that this isn’t the one example that we use to make a point, because I think there will be other spillover negative consequences that I think it’s better for our community and for our city government to avoid.”

First line of protection

Former First Ward Alderman Arthur Newman had nominated Schoenfeld, a member of the Northwestern Neighbors group in that ward, to serve on the new University-City Committee in 2004.

The group was established under a consent agreement issued earlier that year setting out terms of a settlement between the city and Northwestern over the university’s lawsuit challenging the establishment of the Northeast Evanston Historic Preservation District.

The panel was to serve as a first line of discussion on major changes by the university to properties that were removed from the historic district as a result of the settlement then approved by the council.

At the Sept. 11 meeting, Council Member Kelly said Schoenfeld, one of two citizen representatives on the committee, added “a very important institutional history and knowledge to the committee. He knows about topics that have been discussed over 20 years since its [the committee’s] inception.”

Further, she said, prior to the meeting she had even challenged the item even being on the council’s agenda, “because this is not a committee like any other board, committee or commission. This is a court-created committee. It was not formed by the City Council. It was formed out of the federal courts,” she said.

On the number of terms members can serve, it came with “no designated number,” she said.

‘Tremendous asset’

She told council members that it was important to reappoint Schoenfeld “He is a tremendous asset to our community,” she said.

Reid, formerly the Evanston City Clerk, said because the ordinance is silent on the term-limit question, the council rule limiting service to two terms would still apply.

He suggested the council hold off action until their October meeting, and then amend it to create a new standard.

“You know, I have residents in my ward who are likely serving on committees. I think [former 7th Ward Council Member] Jane Grover is a great addition to the Equity and Empowerment Commission and she brings things to it. And so you know there are other folks out there, members of this body might not be supportive of reappointing or suspending the rules because of that particular person.”

Council members, though, elected to move forward on the question, voting 4-1 with one abstention to confirm the reappointment of Schoenfeld to the NU-City Committee.

Voting in favor were Kelly, Revelle, Melissa Wynne (3rd Ward) and Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward). Reid voted against and Ninth Ward Council Member Juan Geracaris, who works for Northwestern, abstained.

Absent from the vote were Council Members Krissie Harris (2nd Ward), Bobby Burns (5th Ward) and Thomas Suffredin (6th Ward).

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