Evanston’s ethics board ruled Tuesday that there was no basis for an ethics complaint filed against Ald. Mark Tendam (6th Ward).
First ward residents Nick Agnew and Claire Kelly filed the complaint on July 15, alleging that Tendam should have recused himself from voting on matters relating to James Pritzker, who donated $1,000 to Tendam’s campaign last fall. Most recently, Tendam joined the majority of aldermen in voting against a proposal to sell the lakefront Harley-Clarke Mansion to Pritzker for redevelopment as a boutique hotel. Previously, he has voted in support of a Pritzker bed and breakfast at 1622 Forest Pl.
The three members of the ethics board present at Monday’s meeting voted unanimously to clear Tendam of five counts submitted against him by Agnew and Kelly. The board ruled that Agnew and Kelly had no basis for bringing their first claim—that Tendam’s acceptance of a $1,000 campaign contribution from Pritzker violated the city’s gift ban—and ruled that the ethics board had no jurisdiction over four other claims in the complaint.
“The Evanston municipal code is absolutely clear,” Tendam’s lawyer, Michael Dorf told board members at the hearing. As Dorf explained, the city’s municipal code states that campaign contributions are an exception to the city’s ban on politicians accepting gifts, and he said Tendam’s campaign manager had followed state law in reporting and accepting Pritzker’s contributions.
Tendam declined to comment on the matter.
In a motion arguing that the ethics board should dismiss the matter, Dorf described the allegations as “frivolous and defamatory” and said the complaint was “meant to chill free and open debate in the Evanston city council.”
Agnew and Kelly, however, argued that accepting a campaign contribution from Pritzker, then voting on developments in which he was involved gave the appearance of impropriety.
“We need to be able to have an open, non-threatening discussion about how we feel as a town about aldermen accepting substantial contributions from developers and then making decisions about those developers,” Kelly told the board of ethics.
In their complaint, Kelly and Agnew also asked the ethics board to determine whether Tendam violated state law by failing to report Pritzker’s campaign contribution on time and whether Tendam should have recused himself from voting on matters related to Pritzker. They also asked the board to amend the code of ethics to prohibit candidates from accepting campaign contributions from anyone with applications for zoning relief, and to appeal any council decisions relating to Pritzker.
The ethics board ruled that it did not have jurisdiction in any of those matters, but chairman Mark Sheldon said the board was planning to discuss the issue of whether campaign contributions could affect aldermanic votes later this year.
“The timing of you bringing your complaint makes this something that we definitely want to pay attention to,” Sheldon said.
Because the ethics board is a recommending body to city council, any legislation it suggested would require city council approval before being enacted, according to city attorney Michelle Masoncup.
Speaking to Patch after the meeting, Kelly said she was “delighted” that the board was planning to consider the issue.
Agnew said at an earlier meeting that the complaint was “not personal,” and that they were most concerned about aldermen voting on zoning issues when they had accepted campaign contributions from people interested in the outcome of those issues.
“This has to do with the way the ethics code is written beyond Harley Clarke,” he said. “We want our city to be better.”