Evanston alderman Fiske blocked Betsi Burns’ appointment to landlord licensing committee

Marshall Cohen

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Ald. Judy Fiske (1st), whose ward includes part of the Northwestern campus, lobbied to exclude the only University administrator nominated to join the city’s Rental Unit Licensing Committee, according to internal emails provided exclusively to The Daily.

“I question whether it is appropriate for (Assistant Dean of Students) Betsi Burns to serve,” Fiske wrote in a Feb. 2 email to Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl. “She certainly hasn’t done us any favors in the media. I hope someone can reassure me that this isn’t going to turn into another media feeding frenzy. If not, I would object to Ms. Burns’… appointment.”

The series of emails, sent in January and February by Tisdahl, Fiske, Burns and other city officials, were provided to The Daily on Monday by a source who wished to remain unnamed due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The committee, first created in November, is tasked with working out the details of a proposed ordinance that would create a licensing process for Evanston landlords. Their first meeting was on March 22, during the University’s spring break. Burns attended the meeting as a private citizen.

The group consists of Fiske and 13 other members, including aldermen Jane Grover (7th) and Don Wilson (4th), homeowners, property managers, landlords and two NU students. Evanston residents interested in participating could nominate themselves but would be subject to aldermanic review prior to official mayoral appointment.

Burns emailed Tisdahl on Jan. 11 asking to be a part of the committee, and the mayor initially signaled her support.

“We do not have anyone from NU’s administration, let’s add her,” Tisdahl wrote in an email to Grover and Ald. Delores Holmes (5th), whose ward includes many students living off campus west of Sheridan Road.

Holmes agreed with Tisdahl in support of Burns’ appointment to the committee, but Fiske raised an objection about one month later, according to the Feb. 2 email.

Tisdahl asked her secretary to “withdraw Betsi’s name” five days later, according to the emails.

Burns said Monday that she was not surprised by her exclusion from the committee and has not questioned the process or actively raised any concerns.

“I was not selected and that is fine – I respect the city officials and I respect their process, as I hope that they respect Northwestern,” Burns said. “I have to believe in the process and trust the officials that we’ve elected to follow the process with integrity.”

Evanston has a longstanding process for committee appointments in which the mayor privately consults aldermen about nominees instead of having a public discussion during city council meetings.

This procedure ensures all nominees are treated with “respect in the public forum” and aldermen can be “confident in all the appointees,” Tisdahl said Monday.

“When an alderman objects, then the name is withdrawn,” Tisdahl said. “People seem to have been happier with this process than with saying negative things about volunteers in public.”

The process, established before Tisdahl joined the City Council in 2003, faced new scrutiny in February after Tisdahl announced her appointments to the landlord licensing committee. Landlord Joshua Braun, who owns about 15 off-campus properties, complained to the City Council Feb. 16 after his nomination to the committee was rejected. Fiske was also responsible for Braun’s disqualification, according to emails obtained by The Daily.

Grover then asked the council’s Rules Committee to review the vetting process that enables a single alderman to unilaterally block mayoral appointments.

Howard Handler, government affairs director for the Illinois Association of Realtors, also asked to participate in the landlord licensing committee, but his nomination was similarly rejected. He said the private vetting process might violate the state’s Open Meetings Act.

“Even if they didn’t break the law, they still violated the spirit of the law,” Handler said. “While the city might have had good intentions to discuss nominations behind closed doors, the end result is that the public was shut out of the process.”

Handler said Fiske’s concern over media coverage of the licensing committee demonstrated her prerogative to put “personal politics” above broad, diverse discourse.

“If you question city staff or city officials, then they’ll shut you out of the dialogue,” Handler said.

Fiske defended her objection Monday. She said she blocked Burns’ appointment because she was not confident Burns could present the hot-button issues facing the committee “in a fair, even-handed way.”

“When you have Ms. Burns saying one thing to students, one thing to administrators and one thing to the city, it just makes the conversation that occurs in the press even more confusing,” Fiske said. “I would expect someone in her position that has been sitting in on these meetings to be able to clarify a message to students, the administration and the public. Instead, the exact opposite occurred.”

Fiske referred to “confused” statements from Burns last year in which the assistant dean encouraged students to move further away from campus and ride the El to Evanston in order to avoid the approaching implementation of the city’s “brothel law.” University officials later reaffirmed keeping students in housing near campus was their priority.

Burns declined to respond directly to Fiske’s comments Monday. Fiske serves on a separate city committee alongside Burns and said she is a “lovely person who serves well.”

mc2014@u.northwestern.edu

The internal emails provided exclusively to The Daily can be viewed in full below.

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