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Highland Park council seeks ethics official

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Highland Park council seeks ethics official

The fallout from what began as an ethical dispute and has now changed into the potential resignation of a councilmember continues to engross the proceedings of Highland Park’s City Council.

City councilmembers used an April 10 Committee of the Whole session to review and discuss the town’s existing ethics guidelines while debating a path forward.

Highland Park officials expressed a desire to tighten their process for resolving ethical questions and disputes, agreeing that town’s current structure lacks definitive steps.

Following a presentation from village attorney Steve Elrod, councilmembers took a casual vote in favor of exploring naming either a city ethics officer or city ombudsperson.

The council instructed staff and corporation counsel to organize additional information on what each position would entail and the differences between the 2 while noting they’d also wish to further discuss supplementary details at a later date.

“I believe we’re landing on a spot where I believe we’d like someone that doesn’t exist right away able of that responsibility,” Councilmember Andrés Tapia said. “Now we have to find out what those responsibilities are and what to call them.”

Why now?

The council’s April 10 discussion got here to actuality largely due to disagreement amongst members in a Jan. 29 committee of the entire meeting when updates to the town’s liquor code were discussed.

Some members of the council previously stated that Jeff Hoobler — who’s currently on leave from the board — violated town’s ethics guidelines by not recusing himself from those discussions. Hoobler is the co-owner of Highland Park’s Ravinia Brewing Company and a liquor license holder in town.

Following the Jan. 29 session, a provision in town’s municipal code that prohibits elected officials from holding a liquor license was dropped at the council’s attention. After the board didn’t amend that provision, Hoobler publicly stated his intention to resign from office on April 30.

Individual vs. team

Throughout the ethics conversation April 10, few concrete details were shared, however the council agreed on naming a person to the position slightly than forming an ethics council and ensuring whoever fills the role is a minimum of one degree of separation from the day-to-day operations of town.

As a part of Elrod’s presentation, the council reviewed how neighboring towns and other nearby municipalities handle ethical disputes. One model that some towns use is naming town or village manager because the presiding ethics office. Towns equivalent to Arlington Heights, Glencoe, Grayslake, Lake Bluff and Lake Forest utilize that model.

There was little to no support from Highland Park officials for moving forward with this selection with several on the council saying it could put town manager in an uncomfortable situation.

Moreover, in response to Elrod, some towns name the acting village board or city council as its ethics commission. Similarly, there was minimal preference toward this selection.

Features of a model for ethical disagreements utilized by nearby Evanston garnered essentially the most favorable consideration from the council.

In Evanston, a special counsel who’s appointed by the mayor, receives complaints and investigates them prior to an administrative hearing before a hearing officer, in response to village documents.

Elrod told councilmembers on the meeting that Evanston had recently been coping with “lots of issues on ethics.” Evanston’s corporation counsel then determined that it could not be appropriate to have town council serve in a task of an ethics commission and as a substitute advised appointing the special counsel.

Typically, that counsel reviews the situation and offers a legal opinion, which regularly ends in an amicable resolution. Elrod is the one who was appointed to serve because the special counsel in Evanston.

Something’s gotta give

One point that officials consistently made clear throughout the meeting is that the present system for addressing ethical disputes in Highland Park lacks structure. Determining a transparent process for these situations showed to be a priority for all members of the council.

Highland Park’s ethics guidelines are “established ethical standards of conduct for all city officials, which incorporates elected officials, city staff and members of city commissions, boards and advisory groups,” in response to city documents.

The rules were first approved in 2007 and have since been reviewed and updated in 2012, 2015 and 2019-20, per a city memo detailing them.

There is no such thing as a clear process currently in town for handling ethical disputes as there shouldn’t be an ethics commission or officer to which conflicts will be dropped at, Elrod detailed in the course of the session.

The prevailing guidelines make it incumbent upon the person elected official to discover and self determine conflicts and in Highland Park, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the manager, mayor or corporation counsel to find out such conflicts.

Throughout the session, councilmembers highlighted their uncertainty with the present accountability measures and the perceived lack of consequences related to the present process.

Officials didn’t make it immediately clear when the group would reconvene for further discussions.

A key point of the following discussion will likely be determining the official title, either the ethics officer or ombudsperson, in addition to what their role is defined as and what their standards are being called upon are, Mayor Nancy Rotering said.

Moreover, Councilmember Anthony Blumberg requested that clarifications regarding the breadth of recusal and what it specifically embodies be a subject of dialogue in the course of the next session.

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