Fiske cleared of alleged ethics violations, Tisdahl bans discussion about Kendall development

Jia You

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The city’s Board of Ethics cleared Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) of any conflict of interest in the Kendall development project, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl announced at last week’s city council meeting.

Tisdahl also banned further discussion on the ethics charges and issues related to the development during citizen comment at future council meetings.

Feinberg Prof. Padma Rao and her mother, B.K. Rao, have commented at city council meetings almost every week for the past year, accusing Fiske of having a conflict of interest regarding residential development at the former site of Kendall College, 2408 Orrington Ave.

The culinary school was once located in north Evanston before moving to Chicago in 2005, according to its website. Smithfield Properties, who orginally managed the project, planned to subdivide the Kendall block site into 19 single-family plots. Originally the plan had also included building an alley that would require removing an oak tree estimated to be 200 years old.

In negotiations, the city told the developer to preserve the tree, TribLocal reported in March 2011. Though a new developer is now handling the project, the same plan is in place.

Still, Rao and her mother are dissatisfied with the provision and have protested against the development plan at almost every council meeting for more than a year.

“We oppose this council’s vote on Kendall to sentence 2,000 trees to death and endanger pedestrians with an alley that dumps traffic onto the narrow street,” Rao said at a city council meeting two weeks ago. “You ignored your legal duty to enforce the city code, which requires tree protection and traffic safety.”

It was a mantra repeated at nearly every city council meeting.

The Raos accused Fiske of having a conflict of interest in her involvement as alderman in the Kendall development, which is in her ward. The Raos argued Fiske’s son works for the law firm Holland and Knight, which represents the developer of Kendall against Evanston.

In addition, she accused Holland and Knight of double representation, since the firm has previously worked for the city in addition to the Kendall developer.

Fiske submitted a request for advisory opinion to the Board of Ethics on Oct. 19, 2011. The board unanimously ruled in March that Fiske did not violate the city’s code of ethics.

In light of the board’s finding, Tisdahl banned further discussion on the Kendall issue during city council meetings’ citizen comment period. She said the issue is no longer within city council’s jurisdiction given the ethics board’s final ruling.

“We have listened to them for over a year,” Tisdahl said last week. “Any further comments on those issues will be ruled out of order by the mayor.”

Tisdahl also praised Fiske for working with the developer to protect the trees around Kendall.

“I think you’ve done a fabulous job, and I’m delighted that the ethics committee did what we all knew they would,” Tisdahl said. “I’m glad you did the right thing and asked them for a ruling.”

Rao is an assistant professor of clinical radiology at Feinberg who describes herself as “volunteer faculty,” which means she doesn’t teach full time and she doesn’t teach regular classes. She told The Daily on Tuesday that she considers Tisdahl’s ban on further comments a violation of her First Amendment rights.

“I don’t understand why or how she can do that,” she said. “I don’t understand how a government can stop you from talking about something just because the government either doesn’t like you or doesn’t like your message.”

Ald. Jane Grover (7th) said Tuesday that the ban is a case of managing council agenda.

“We welcome residents to come to city council with input and opinions and to be heard on issues,” Grover said. “But sometimes the city council also has to manage its agenda so that it can get down to the business of that agenda.”

Grover said residents should not feel discouraged about their ability to address the council, adding that she has personally invited the Raos for coffee to discuss their complaints, though they declined her offer.

“I’m always willing to talk with them, discuss what they hope to accomplish and whether they feel their advocacy has been particularly effective, in whatever setting and whatever context they like,” Grover said.