Towers, Tables and Transparency in Government

Being a witness to all the public meetings on the 708 Church proposal has its ups and downs. However much you want to believe that elected officials have Evanston's best interests at heart, there is always that sick feeling in the back of your mind that something just isn't right. I honestly thought that our elected officials were actually going to do the right thing, and represent their constituents at Wednesday's P&D meeting on the Tower. However, what citizen's got was a highly orchestrated show that even the best fiction writer would have had a hard time beating.

Now before you get the wrong idea, I STILL believe there are a handful of elected officials who wanted to do the right thing and may not have been clued in on the plot of the "show" that was to unfold. In fact, I would venture to guess that a few of them were taken by total surprise.

For well over a year, the 708 proposal has been guided along a specially constructed path. It has defied the odds and been kept alive when any other similar development would have been denied entry or consideration. Staff, developers and elected city officials have sworn to us that nothing "funny" is going on behind the scenes. Yet, we have the following:

1. A proposal for a high-rise development that totally explodes the myth of zoning laws and gives a new definition to spot zoning.

2. A questionable (actually the Attorney General called it illegal) meeting between the development team, City Staff and our Elected Officials.

3. The exempting of the proposal from a moratorium, even though the Senior Legal Counsel told the Council that there was NO legal reason why the developers of THIS development should be excluded from the moratorium.

4. A split vote from the Plan Commission (4 giving approval with specific conditions, 3 dissenting and filing a minority report, and 1 whose term ended two weeks before the vote)

5. A developer who REFUSED to make any significant changes during the Plan Commission process, yet was forced to come up with an alternative proposal later in the process when they realized there were the votes to kill the project.

6. A project that totally disregarded the current zoning laws, and when asked to provide tangible and substantial public benefits, provided nothing significant enough to offset the allowances being requested.

7. A developer who said he "knew" Evanston, yet proposed something that was totally our of character and context with the Evanston that is known by its citizens.

8. A project that offers LESS retail space than currently exists while ELIMINATING office space that is currently contributing to the City; while at the same time adding 218 luxury condominiums to a saturated market.

9. A group of consultants were hired who "mysteriously" identified the subject property as being the "perfect" place for a very tall and extremely dense project -- in opposition to what citizens involved in the process wanted for the block. It does seem odd that at least one of the architects of the proposed building had a very long and sociable history with two of the lead consultants hired by the City. A coincidence?

10. Volumes of transcripts of citizen and expert testimony on reasons why NOT to approve the project. Citizens organizing, signing petitions in opposition to the project, emailing and calling their Aldermen, posting signs -- the voice of the citizens was deafening.

11. A request by the developer for $3 million in city funds to help them "save" the Hahn building, and then claim the private transaction as a "public" benefit to Evanston.

12. The hiring of an "independent" consultant to verify that the developers needed the money for the Hahn building AND could build a successful and profitable project (all at a cost of only $20,000).

Finally, we come to the meeting where the Aldermen get a chance to discuss and vote on the project. There were clearly enough votes to reject the plan commission recommendation and effectively kill the project. But then, just when you least expect it, a fly in the ointment. Not enough votes to pass it, Alderman Moran proposes to table the motion -- seconded by Alderman Rainey. There are questions as to what the actual rules are. It seemed odd that the legal representative from the City had no idea about Council Rules and little information about Robert's Rules of Order -- however, he had done his homework and surprisingly had done some "research" on P&D rules. Could he have been asked earlier in the week to be ready for this? It makes one wonder.

To pass, the proposal needed a super-majority (6 of 9 Aldermen). However, to TABLE the motion somehow only needed a simple majority. However, the item will still be on all subsequent P&D agendas because it was not tabled to a "date-certain". Could it be taken off the table without notice to citizens?

So, instead of passing the motion and effectively killing the proposal; OUR elected officials found a way to keep the project on life support until they could pass a downtown plan (could it be that maybe 38 stories will be the "right" height in the coming downtown plan? It gives one pause.)

What could have happened tonight, is that the Council could have done something to reverse the perception that the project was a done-deal from the start. Several of them actually wanted to do the right thing. However, in the end the citizens are left with a sour taste in their mouths and doubts about what goes on behind closed doors.

An interesting side light, is that P&D changed "hats" at the end of the meeting into their role as the City Council and decided to go into executive session. It seems odd that there was NO notice of this meeting as required by law. It wasn't "posted in the elevator" and it wasn't on the calendar at the information desk. Is anyone taking notes? On a positive note -- we learned from one speaker that our taxes are low and that we are not headed into a recession (good to know).

From Roberts Rules of Order

"Misuses of the Motion. As stated at the beginning of this section, the motion to Lay on the Table is subject to a number of incorrect uses that should be avoided.

It is out of order to move to lay a pending question on the table if there is evidently no other matter urgently requiring immediate attention. At a special meeting, it is dilatory and out of order to move to lay on the table the matter for which the meeting has been called.

The motion to Lay on the Table is often incorrectly used and wrongly admitted as in order with the intention of either killing an embarrassing question without a direct vote, or of suppressing a question without debate. The first of these two uses is unsafe if there is any contest on the issue; the second is in violation of a basic principle of general parliamentary law that only a two-thirds vote can rightfully suppress a main question without allowing free debate."


Mr. Ernst: I never said "we are not headed into a recession". I don't make predictions about the future of the U.S. economy -- I will leave that to the pundits. I did, however, state a fact: we are not in a recession now. A recession is generally defined by economists as two quarters in a row when the GDP has declined. That has not occured. In fact, the GDP for 1Q of 2008 was up slightly. It would be correct to characterize the U.S. economy as "sluggish" or "slow" but it is not in a recession.

Second, I never stated that "our taxes are low". I did make a factual statement: Evanston's residential property taxes, the actual dollars one pays as a proportion to market value, have declined from 1999 to 2005 -- the last full tax year for which we have data. A major reason for this decline is the tremendous growth in the overall Equalized Assessed Value of all property in Evanston. Much of that growth can be attributed to new construction and most of that new construction has come from high-rise residential condos in downtown Evanston. You may not like the asethetics of the marketplace but there is no denying the significant positive impact the growth has had on Evanston's tax base.

For a graphical representation of what I am explaining, you and your readers might look at the chart that I provided to Jim Hughes (and that he has kindly posted on this website), which shows EAV growth in Evanston since 1980 -- both in nominal and inflation adjusted terms.

Then, you might want to ask yourself: what would your tax bill look like without this growth?

Jonathan, Thank you for the data posted here. Data is good.

Regarding residential property taxes you stated:

“..the actual dollars one pays as a proportion to market value, have declined from 1999 to 2005”

This is one way to interpret the data. However, when I write those checks to the County Assessor twice yearly.. somehow the idea of a ‘declining proportion’ does not come to mind….since my taxes have consistently gone up.

Also, I have not yet gotten into the habit of taking a loan on the house to pay the taxes. And since I am not selling my home the gains in market value are moot.....Except in one area…the increasing market value of a home eventually translates to increased assessed valuation and (although I know they are not linked…but somehow) increased taxes.

(I wonder how much of that increased value has been speculative? And as the market goes sideways and down… will valuations and those unlinked taxes go down?)

A better metric from my point might be service per PIN. On a per property basis are we getting. A. more services? B. the same services? C. less services? But since my taxes keep going up and services seem to stay the same or even decline…where is this money going? Are the new condo owners paying for all the services they use?

Lastly, with the structural imbalance in the city budget, I’m not sure we don’t have an accumulating obligation that has not yet worked its way into the tax bills. Faulkner once said “The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.”

I guess if you are promoting Evanston you do need to burnish the positive. But, from my perspective ….that coin might have two sides.