WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Ethics Commission wants to embrace the lessons learned from its first-ever hearing of a complaint against a public official.
In several 5-0 votes Thursday afternoon, the commission agreed to request opinions from the State’s Attorney’s Office regarding improving the rules it must follow and the county ethics ordinance it is charged with upholding.
The discussion was prompted by an ethics complaint filed last month by Lakewood blogger Cal Skinner. He alleged that an email sent to County Board members by Undersheriff Andrew Zinke – who is running for his retiring boss’s job – violated the ordinance’s ban on using taxpayer time or resources to campaign.
The commission had been scheduled Thursday to hear Zinke’s motion alleging that Skinner’s complaint was frivolous, but Zinke attorney Mark Gummerson informed the commission Monday that he had no intention of pursuing it. They did not attend.
The first opinion the commission asked of the State’s Attorney’s Office was to see whether language could be added to the ethics ordinance to define a frivolous complaint. The present ordinance, which is practically identical to the model ethics ordinance drafted by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office for local governments to emulate, contains no definition.
Commission Chairman Thomas Spencer said a definition is needed so as not to scare off people with legitimate complaints, while at the same time deterring people who would seek to use the commission as a political tool by filing meritless complaints against public officials.
“I think, at least as to that portion of [the ordinance], there is a lot of room for interpretation,” Spencer said.
Skinner’s complaint alleged that Zinke’s email – disputing Skinner’s blog postings and pictures alleging that Zinke gave him the middle finger at a parade – violated the ordinance’s ban on prohibited political activities.
The email was sent on Zinke’s work email during work hours and made multiple references to his candidacy for sheriff. Zinke is running to succeed Sheriff Keith Nygren, who is not seeking re-election in 2014.
The commission met July 25 to determine whether Skinner’s complaint was sufficient. After hearing comment from Gummerson and after a 30-minute closed session, the committee voted, 4-0, with one member absent, that it was not. Skinner’s complaint was the third ever received by the commission, which was seated in 2005, and the first to go all the way to a sufficiency hearing.
The fact that commission members appeared to struggle with how to proceed, along with the closed-session deliberations, raised concerns with several County Board members. The board’s Management Services Committee began looking into whether the ethics ordinance and the commission’s bylaws needed change. Three of the committee members and board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, attended Thursday’s meeting.
The commission Thursday also asked for a state’s attorney’s opinion on whether it would be possible to enact more stringent requirements restricting the ability of the commission to enter closed session. The Illinois Open Meetings Act limits the reasons a public body can cite to exclude the public and deliberate privately. Bodies already have the option to reject the exemption and discuss any matter in open session.
In another motion, the commission asked the state’s attorney to explore language changes that would more clearly define its role in enforcing the ordinance’s two prohibitions – engaging in prohibited political activity and violating the ordinance’s gift ban. While the commission can rule on gift ban violations, which carry a fine between $1,000 and $5,000, it forwards prohibited political activities claims it rules are sufficient to the State’s Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution. Violating that portion of the ordinance is a criminal offense punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Skinner and his attorney, Robert Hanlon, attended Thursday’s meeting. While Skinner said after the meeting that he was happy he would not be facing sanctions, he echoed the sentiment that Hanlon told the commission during public comment – that they blew the call when it came to Skinner’s original complaint.
“If this email is not prohibited political activity, using his county email address and referencing his campaign seven, eight times, what on earth would be a violation of the ethics ordinance?” Skinner said.