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The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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No vote for Fiske lawsuit

Six Evanston aldermen excluded themselves Monday from deciding on a case that could have removed one of their own from office.

As a result, the Evanston City Council will not hear any of the arguments in the lawsuit that losing First Ward aldermanic candidate Judy Fiske filed to remove Ald. Cheryl Wollin (1st) from office. Richard Means, Fiske’s attorney, said he will refile the suit in the Circuit Court of Cook County within the next two weeks.

The Circuit Court could rule on the issue or require the City Council to make a decision.

The aldermen who excused themselves from the case said they could judge fairly but feared they would be perceived as having a conflict of interest.

“It poisons the atmosphere,” Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd) said. “It creates a perception that this council was already prejudiced against the plaintiff and that it could not move fairly.”

Ald. Edmund Moran (6th) excluded himself first, quickly followed by Jean-Baptiste and Alds. Ann Rainey (8th), Steven Bernstein (4th), Delores Holmes (5th) and Elizabeth Tisdahl (7th). The remaining two aldermen could not vote because the council lacked a quorum, the minimum number of aldermen required to have a vote. The meeting ended after 50 minutes.

Fiske’s case alleges that about 200 student ballots cast in the April election needed to be thrown out because Northwestern bribed the students to vote by offering a pizza party and housing points, which students can redeem for more desirable dorm rooms.

If the ballots were discounted, Fiske would be declared the winner of the election.

Fiske filed her suit in May, and in June the Circuit Court ruled the council should judge the electoral dispute.

During Monday’s meeting, four aldermen – Bernstein, Holmes, Moran and Tisdahl – said they wrote checks to Wollin’s defense fund after Fiske filed her lawsuit but before they knew they would have to judge the case.

Wollin returned all of the checks.

Bernstein said his decision to write a check to Wollin had nothing to do with the merit of her case.

“I believe that everyone is entitled to their day in court,” Bernstein said. “She indicated to me her inability to pay, and had Mrs. Fiske asked me I would have tendered her the same check.”

Aldermen were scheduled to hear a motion to dismiss Fiske’s case. Both sides would have had 30 minutes to give their arguments. No evidence or witnesses could have been presented.

Had the motion been granted, Wollin would have retained her seat on the council. Had the motion not passed, the council would have seen evidence related to the case at a later date.

But before either lawyer had a chance to argue on the motion, Means asked for the city to release recordings of closed aldermanic sessions in which Fiske’s case might have been discussed.

He had heard that in one such closed session, Tisdahl expressed her support for Wollin, he said. Means declined to reveal his source.

“We should be able to be assured that people have not made up their minds in advance and that they will be able, depending on what the evidence is and depending on what the legal arguments are, to rule either way,” Means said.

Closed sessions often are used to discuss pending legal matters, and are typically held twice a month. Means said the council did not have the legal right to hold closed sessions to discuss cases such as these, in which they are acting as a judge.

But Wollin’s lawyer, former Seventh Ward alderman Stephen Engelman, said the debate over closed meetings was irrelevant.

“What we are here for tonight is to determine whether or not this case should be dismissed,” he said. “The only issues before this council are the allegations that are in the complaint, the motion to dismiss – and whether or not the members of this council are capable of hearing those arguments.”

Aldermen did not say what happened in the closed meetings but said they did not want Means’ claim to taint the results of the case.

“I was looking forward to a very academic and informative discussion tonight, but I’m getting more and more disgusted,” Rainey said. “And the more disgusted I feel, the less fair I feel.”

NU Associated Student Government President Patrick Keenan-Devlin came to the meeting, but the approximately 80 other residents who attended were not students.

Some of the residents said they were disappointed by the outcome of the meeting.

“I was surprised, and I feel the council should have acted on the arguments,” said Jan Otwell, who observed the meeting for the League of Women Voters. “I was hoping they would have heard the argument and made a decision.”

But others said the council made the right decision in choosing not to vote.

“The Circuit Court is really the appropriate place for this,” First Ward resident Barbara Janes said. “Aldermen are too close to the situation.”

Jeff Smith, one of Wollin’s lawyers, said Fiske should just drop the lawsuit.

“I continue to hold out the hope that at some point the losers of this election will come to their senses and accept the results of the vote,” Smith said.

Reach Greg Hafkin at [email protected] and Lee S. Ettleman at [email protected].

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No vote for Fiske lawsuit