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[UPDATED] Should Alderman Tunney Recuse Himself From a Food Truck Vote?

By Karl Klockars in News on Jun 21, 2011 6:00PM

According to the recent food truck story from the Sun-Times, 44th ward Alderman Tom Tunney has some specific concerns over the possibility of food trucks coming too close to established brick-and-mortar restaurants. Rightfully so - City Hall reporter Fran Spielman called him the "restaurant-owning Alderman," which is confirmed by financial disclosure forms Tunney filed with the City Clerk. Is that enough to establish a conflict of interest, as defined by the city's Board of Ethics? Or is the money he's been paid by the city for catering enough to do it?

In the documents, Tunney cited his "100% ownership" of Ann Sather's by Thomas M. Tunney Ent. Ltd in forms from 2007 through 2010. In addition to the ownership of the restaurant (for which he takes no salary, according to the same docs), he discloses the $8,095 he's been paid by the city for catering events at City Hall, for Chicago Public Schools and for the Chicago Police Department according to those forms. (Catering, we might add, that was delivered via vehicle.)

The documents from the City Clerk's site detail the receipts from the last four years, Ann Sather's has delivered catering in amounts of $3348,50 in 2007, $3525.00 in 2008, $733.40 in 2009 and $488.10 just last year. (The images attached to this post are all taken from forms posted to the Clerk's site as well as this Chicago Tribune report.) Is this a direct conflict of interest? According to the city's website,

[A]ny member of City Council who has any economic interest distinguishable from that of the general public or all aldermen in any matter pending before City Council or any Council Committee shall:

1. publicly disclose the nature and extent of such interest on the record of Council proceedings;
2. notify the Board of Ethics of such interest within 72 hours of delivery by the City Clerk to the member, of the introduction of any ordinance, resolution, order or other matter in the City Council, or as soon thereafter as the member is or should be aware of such potential conflict of interest; and
3. abstain from voting on the matter, but be counted present for quorum purposes. The Board must make these disclosures available for public inspection and copying immediately upon receipt.

Basically, what we have here is an Alderman with a documented monetary connection to a foodservice business, who has not yet recused himself from voting on legislation relating to the foodservice business. Could this be where his newfound "problems" with the ordinance could be coming from?

Numerous aldermen have filed recusals for things like legal work with parties related to legislation, business relationships involving purchases of property from developers, and prior relationships with service providers, among other things. Owning a separate business in addition to being an alderman isn't uncommon, either - Alderman Ed Burke, for example, continues to do legal work for dozens of clients and has filed numerous recusals. Tunney hasn't filed a single disclosure form, citing either an economic relationship or a business relationship, in the months since July 2009, according to the city's website.

When we asked Alderman Scott Waguespack, who recently re-introduced the ordinance to the City Council, if he thought there was any conflict of interest, he responded by saying he "could see somewhat of a dilemma." He noted that most other recusals are for zoning and real estate issues, and that it would be an "interesting situation" for the Board of Ethics to handle. As to whether or not it would ultimately get in the way, Waguespack said, "I think if he pointed it out, it would clear up any potential problems," and the council would then allow Tunney to vote. Matt Maroni, the chef behind the Gaztro-Wagon and the driving force behind the food truck ordinance, took to Twitter in the wake of the story questioning Tunney's new problems with the ordinance. Maroni told us that Tunney was in favor of the legislation a year ago, and while the Illinois Restaurant Assocation has yet to officially decide whether they're for or against the ordinance, representative Sheila O'Grady was reported as wanting them restricted to "to food deserts only" as mentioned in last week's food-truck post.

"I know there's been meetings behind closed doors with different restaurateurs that don't want to see this thing happen," Maroni said. "Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but is he listening to his constituents or is he listening to the Restaurant Association?" When asked if Tunney should recuse himself from a vote on the ordinance, Maroni replied, "if he still owns that restaurant, absolutely."

As of press time, Alderman Tunney has not responded to repeated requests for comment. We'll update if we receive any new information.

We've received word from the Alderman's office. In a statement, Ald. Tunney explains:

I was an original co-sponsor of the mobile food truck ordinance in 2010 along with Alderman Scott Waguespack, Alderman Vi Daley and Alderman Brenden Reilly. I believe mobile food trucks are a new trend that can be successful in Chicago. There are outstanding concerns with the currently proposed legislation that need to be addressed before the full City Council takes a vote. I have contacted the Board of Ethics and they have informed me that I have no conflict of interest concerning this legislation. My long-term experience as a restaurateur provides valuable insight into the effect that this legislation will have on our industry. I look forward to working with my fellow aldermen to pass an ordinance but it is going to require continued and careful consideration as to how it affects local businesses and neighborhood concerns.

We also reached out repeatedly to the Board of Ethics for comment. Since we weren't privy to the conversation between the Board of Ethics and the Alderman, we still don't know if the direct monetary interest between the restaurant and the city was specifically discussed.

If there are any further updates, we'll keep you posted. Anyone with other information is welcome, and invited, to email us.