Highland Park, News

Highland Park council wants an ethics official

The fallout from what began as an ethical dispute and has now turned into the potential resignation of a councilmember continues to engross the proceedings of Highland Park’s City Council.

City councilmembers used an April 10 Committee of the Whole session to review and discuss the town’s existing ethics guidelines while debating a path forward.

Highland Park officials expressed a desire to tighten their process for resolving ethical questions and disputes, agreeing that the city’s current structure lacks definitive steps.

Following a presentation from village attorney Steve Elrod, councilmembers took an informal vote in favor of exploring naming either a city ethics officer or city ombudsperson.

The council instructed staff and corporation counsel to prepare additional information on what each position would entail and the differences between the two while noting they would also like to further discuss supplementary details at a later date.

“I think we’re landing on a place where I think we need somebody that doesn’t exist right now in a position of that responsibility,” Councilmember Andrés Tapia said. “We have to determine what those responsibilities are and what to call them.”

Why now?

The council’s April 10 discussion came to actuality in large part because of the disagreement among members in a Jan. 29 committee of the whole meeting when updates to the town’s liquor code were discussed.

Some members of the council previously stated that Jeff Hoobler — who is currently on leave from the board — violated the city’s ethics guidelines by not recusing himself from those discussions. Hoobler is the co-owner of Highland Park’s Ravinia Brewing Company and a liquor license holder in the city.

Following the Jan. 29 session, a provision in the city’s municipal code that prohibits elected officials from holding a liquor license was brought to the council’s attention. After the board failed to amend that provision, Hoobler publicly stated his intention to resign from office on April 30.

Individual vs. team

During the ethics conversation April 10, few concrete details were shared, but the council agreed on naming an individual to the position rather than forming an ethics council and ensuring whoever fills the role is at least one degree of separation from the day-to-day operations of the city.

As part of Elrod’s presentation, the council reviewed how neighboring towns and other nearby municipalities handle ethical disputes. One model that some towns use is naming the city or village manager as the presiding ethics office. Towns such as Arlington Heights, Glencoe, Grayslake, Lake Bluff and Lake Forest utilize that model.

There was little to no support from Highland Park officials for moving forward with this option with several on the council saying it would put the city manager in an uncomfortable situation.

Additionally, according to Elrod, some towns name the acting village board or city council as its ethics commission. Similarly, there was minimal preference toward this option.

Aspects of a model for ethical disagreements utilized by nearby Evanston garnered the most favorable consideration from the council.

In Evanston, a special counsel who’s appointed by the mayor, receives complaints and investigates them prior to an administrative hearing before a hearing officer, according to village documents.

Elrod told councilmembers at the meeting that Evanston had recently been dealing with “a lot of issues on ethics.” Evanston’s corporation counsel then determined that it would not be appropriate to have the city council serve in a role of an ethics commission and instead advised appointing the special counsel.

Typically, that counsel reviews the situation and offers a legal opinion, which often results in an amicable resolution. Elrod is the person who was appointed to serve as the special counsel in Evanston.

Something’s gotta give

One point that officials consistently made clear throughout the meeting is that the current system for addressing ethical disputes in Highland Park lacks structure. Determining a clear process for these situations showed to be a priority for all members of the council.

Highland Park’s ethics guidelines are “established ethical standards of conduct for all city officials, which includes elected officials, city staff and members of city commissions, boards and advisory groups,” according to city documents.

The guidelines were first approved in 2007 and have since been reviewed and updated in 2012, 2015 and 2019-20, per a city memo detailing them.

There is no clear process currently in the city for handling ethical disputes as there is not an ethics commission or officer to which conflicts can be brought to, Elrod detailed during the session.

The existing guidelines make it incumbent upon the individual elected official to identify and self determine conflicts and in Highland Park, it is not the responsibility of the manager, mayor or corporation counsel to determine such conflicts.

During the session, councilmembers highlighted their uncertainty with the existing accountability measures and the perceived lack of consequences related to the current process.

Officials did not make it immediately clear when the group would reconvene for further discussions.

A key point of the next discussion will be determining the official title, either the ethics officer or ombudsperson, as well as what their role is defined as and what their standards are being called upon are, Mayor Nancy Rotering said.

Additionally, Councilmember Anthony Blumberg requested that clarifications regarding the breadth of recusal and what it specifically embodies be a topic of discussion during the next session.

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martin carlino
Martin Carlino

Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.

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