City Council meetings in Evanston are long. That’s a problem.


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) speaks at a city meeting while Ald. Tom Suffredin (6th) looks on. City Council meetings in Evanston often go long into the night, and aldermen say the long hours don’t help discussion and decision-making.

Kristina Karisch and Nora Shelly

Mondays tend to be a late night for Evanston’s aldermen and city officials.

It’s not Monday Night Football or an impending dread of the rest of the work week that keeps them awake, but council meetings that start in the evening and sometimes stretch into the early hours of the next morning.

“It’s insane. They just go on forever,” Ald. Tom Suffredin (6th) said. “Everyone talks for a very long time, and nobody really listens, and then either we plow through or everyone’s like: ‘Oh, it’s too late, we can’t talk about anything more.’ It’s nuts.”

Suffredin has only been on council for about a year and a half, but he’s right: In 2016, city council meetings averaged just over 90 minutes. For a similar timeframe so far this year, they’ve averaged over an hour longer. Of an eight-meeting stretch ending in August, three meetings were over four hours, and four meetings were longer than three hours. All but two were longer than two hours.

Add onto that slightly longer average times for the two committees that often meet before council, and the whole night is just over an hour and a half longer on average than in 2016. The weeks council meets for executive session after the public meeting is over are 30 minutes to an hour longer.

For those residents (and reporters) hoping to stay till the end, the late nights are a nuisance at best. And when the building has to stay open past 11 p.m., the Civic Center’s night janitor has to work overtime hours, said city manager Wally Bobkiewicz. For the aldermen, though, the hours-long meetings can diminish their ability to complete their duties.

“I don’t think people are at their best when it’s midnight and you’re debating issues around town,” Mayor Steve Hagerty said. “People are naturally tired.”

That fatigue played out in dramatic fashion at a meeting over the summer.

It was past 1 a.m. — about an hour after someone had ordered Insomnia Cookies for council members — and aldermen were discussing alley pavement. Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) wanted to allocate funding for pavement of alleys in her ward, and Suffredin objected. Rainey said Suffredin would not be objecting if the pavement had been suggested in another ward.

“That’s such bulls–t, Ann,” Suffredin said, as other aldermen audibly gasped. “Yes, yes, be shocked.”

“Oh boy,” Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd) interjected, saying that “nothing good happens after midnight.”

“Everything you do is subject to scrutiny,” Suffredin continued. “You are sketchy as f–k.”

A beat later, Rainey called Suffredin “an unfortunate human being.”

Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th), who sits between Suffredin and Rainey on the dais, said that despite the late hour of meetings, aldermen still manage to carry on the discussion and make decisions.

“I think we start getting a little more short-tempered, and I think that’s not good for discussion and public dialogue,” Revelle said. “We manage to power on through somehow.”

The first committee meeting of the night typically starts at 6 p.m., and Council will usually start anytime after 7 p.m. Even with these start times, however, aldermen will often only start discussing agenda items well into the night.

The reason is most often a combination of public comment, proclamations and presentations by city staff, which can delay the actual decision-making parts of meetings.

Several alderman noted public comment, which according to the city code is limited to 45 minutes, often runs longer. In recent months, debate over proposed developments, the budget and the fate of the Harley Clarke mansion have sometimes drawn dozens of people to meetings to speak during public comment.

“Anytime you have something that people feel passionate about, you’re going to have more people coming out to talk about it,” Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) said.

It may not just be Evanston issues drawing people to the meetings.

“The world is a different place after the national elections of two years ago,” Bobkiewicz said. “I think that invigorated many people to get more involved with the local level.”

This isn’t the first time council meetings have gone too long. Wilson, who has been on council for about ten years, said he remembers around 2010, meetings were getting really long. After aldermen began being less long-winded, he said, they shortened up again. According to minutes from twenty meetings that year, meetings averaged two hours 10 minutes long. Several, however, stretched well over four hours, and others didn’t start until well after 8 p.m.

Wilson said the meeting lengths, beyond wearing on aldermen, can limit residents from being able to attend for public comment or to hear discussion over important issues. In order to make meetings more accessible for residents, City Clerk Devon Reid suggested council have a concrete start time.

To combat the length of the meetings, Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) has proposed consolidating committees in the city, or discussing items from the Administration and Public Works Committee by using a consent calendar and limiting talk to council.

Suffredin said he agrees with the proposal, and also suggested that Hagerty more strictly enforce time limits for speakers — whether it be residents speaking during public comment or his colleagues up at the dais.

“It’s ridiculous that a community the size of Evanston has a council making important decisions so late into the night,” Suffredin said. “There’s got to be a better way to do this. … Why are we there at 11:45 at night?”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @kristinakarisch

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @noracshelly