McHenry County Ethics Commission under review

Blogger who filed complaint faces potential fine; handling of hearing questioned

WOODSTOCK – Last month’s hearing before the McHenry County Ethics Commission is prompting a County Board committee to examine the commission and the ordinance that empowers it.

Members of the Management Services Committee expressed concerns Monday about how the Ethics Commission handled a July 25 hearing of a complaint alleging that Undersheriff Andrew Zinke – who is running in 2014 for his boss’s job – campaigned on taxpayer time and resources.

The Ethics Commission, after an hourlong meeting in which commissioners appeared to struggle with how to proceed, ruled 4-0 against a motion to find that sufficient evidence existed that an email from Zinke constituted a prohibited political activity.

The complaint, filed by Lakewood blogger Cal Skinner, was the first hearing for the commission, which has received only three complaints since its 2005 seating.

Several Management Services Committee members said accounts of how the hearing unfolded show the process needs improvement.

“There’s nothing more important than an ethics commission looking ethical,” said committee member Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake.

Management Services may take up the discussion at its Aug. 26 meeting – three days before the Ethics Commission is set to reconvene to hear Zinke’s allegation that Skinner’s complaint was frivolous – a finding that could cost Skinner a fine of up to $5,000.

The fine is one of the things that several committee members want to examine. Member Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, called it excessive and having a potential chilling effect on whistle-blowers.

The issue started with a photograph taken by Skinner, and posted on his blog, showing what appears to be Zinke giving Skinner the middle finger while driving by at the Crystal Lake Independence Day Parade.

Zinke sent an email July 10 disputing the allegation to all 24 members of the County Board. Skinner’s complaint alleged that the email, sent from a county email during work hours and referencing Zinke’s campaign several times, violated county ordinance. Sheriff Keith Nygren, who is not seeking re-election, said he ordered Zinke to send the email to maintain the integrity of the working relationship with the County Board, which has budgetary oversight of the sheriff’s office.

The Ethics Commission deliberated in closed session for about 30 minutes before denying Skinner’s complaint. Had it found the complaint sufficient, it would have been forwarded to State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi for possible prosecution.

Prohibited political activities under the ordinance carry a maximum penalty of a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail.

Skinner could not be reached for comment. He blogged Tuesday about the Management Services meeting, which he attended.

The McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office told the committee Monday that it has the authority to amend the ethics ordinance, as long as it does not end up less stringent than what state law prescribes.

Illinois governments had to adopt ethics ordinances, and create ethics commissions to hear complaints, after Springfield toughened restrictions in the wake of scandals surrounding former Gov. George Ryan.

Besides the process, several Management Services members expressed concern that the commission deliberated in closed session, which is allowed under the ordinance and the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

Committee Chairwoman Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, said the process has to be open when it deals with an ethical issue of a public employee.

Attorneys Mark Gummerson and Rebecca Lee, who represented Zinke, spoke during the public comment section in open session.

“It should be out there for people to hear the pros and cons,” Yensen said.

Despite the ruling in Zinke’s favor, the issue is sure to come up in what already has shaped up to be an acrimonious race to replace Nygren. Zinke is facing a GOP primary challenge from former Des Plaines Police Cmdr. Bill Prim, and the winner would face independent candidate Jim Harrison, a labor lawyer and former sheriff’s deputy.

What it means

The McHenry County Board Management Services Committee wants to review the county ethics ordinance and its Ethics Commission in the wake of last month’s handling of a hearing regarding a complaint filed against Undersheriff and political candidate Andrew Zinke.

What’s next

The Ethics Commission is meeting Aug. 29 to address a countercomplaint filed by Zinke alleging that blogger Cal Skinner’s ethics complaint against him was frivolous. County ordinance levies a fine of up to $5,000 for a complaint ruled frivolous.

The meeting starts at 3 p.m. at the county Administration Building, 667 Ware Road, Woodstock.

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