LAKE FOREST — A special counsel hired to investigate circumstances surrounding retention of a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm without Lake Forest City Council approval has started her inquiry.
The council unanimously ratified a decision January 16 at City Hall made over the holiday period hiring Leigh Jeter as special counsel to look into the city’s actions retaining the lobbying firm to help the city secure an Amtrak stop at the West Lake Forest train station.
Jeter is an attorney with a background and long history conducting “neutral workplace investigations,” according to her firm’s website.
“She will be looking into the procedures that led to the hiring of the lobbying firm without prior approval,” said Alderman Jack Reisenberg in a DailyNorthShore interview after the meeting.
Reisenberg is the point person on the council for the investigation. He said Jeter will make an initial report in February and a final account when she is done. He said there is not a deadline on completion.
The circumstances leading to Jeter’s hiring started during a December 4 council meeting when a group of residents complained the city spent $192,000 on the lobbying firm between July 20, 2016 and October 20, 2017, to help the city secure the Amtrak stop, DNS reported on December 5.
“There is no record of that in any minutes.” said Joanne Desmond, president of the Academy Woods Homeowners Association, at the time.
Citizens for Action Opposes Amtrak Expansion
Desmond is a leading organizer of Citizens for Action, a group of residents along the North Shore who oppose added infrastructure proposed by the Federal Railroad Administration before it allows Amtrak to add three round trips daily to its Hiawatha service between Chicago and Milwaukee.
That includes construction of three holding tracks that would allow faster passenger trains to pass slower freights.
One track is proposed to be approximately 10,000 feet long between Highway 60 in Lake Forest and Rondout near Highway 176, according to the FRA’s environmental assessment. Another rail of similar distance will span Glenview and Northbrook between West Lake Avenue and Techny Road. A shorter, 1,500-foot third rail is planned north of Greenwood Avenue in Deerfield.
Lake Forest Mayor Rob Lansing said there is no connection between the Amtrak stop and the third rail. Desmond said she fears there is.
After more than five years of trying to secure the Amtrak stop, the city hired Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell, a lobbying firm in Washington D.C., to help it achieve that goal. The firm was not retained by the city outright but hired through Victor Filippini, the city’s attorney.
The move was made with the knowledge of City Manager Robert Kiely Jr. and former Mayor Donald Schoenheider, who was in office at the time. It was also done without the knowledge of the aldermen. Lansing learned of the relationship shortly after taking office in May.
Council Seeks More Oversight
By the time the council convened two weeks later on December 18, its Finance Committee had already started to work on new procedures to control money in the contingency fund that was used to pay the lobbying firm, DNS reported on December 19. It met in executive session that night until after midnight and resumed deliberations the following evening.
The council met in executive session January 16 after concluding its regular business to continue to discuss personnel policies in the aftermath of the lobbying incident. Kiely, Filippini and Lansing did not participate.
“They’re parties of interest,” said Reisenberg, adding their actions regarding the lobbying firm may be under discussion during the executive session.
Jeter has already met with representatives of Citizens for Action, according to Frank Nimesheim of Lake Forest who spoke about the group’s visit with her at the January 16 council meeting. He said she listened to their concerns, but he wanted to know more about the scope of her authority.
Before the council meeting, the Finance Committee met to discuss the steps it has taken to assure more control over the contingency fund and other financial procedures. At the December 18 Finance Committee meeting, Finance Director Elizabeth Holleb outlined procedures to give the committee chair more oversight of spending.
Holleb disclosed three new suggested steps to tighten control including new software, required goal setting and a more specific purchasing process.