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Two ethics complaints, one unfortunate perception

Having covered two ethics hearings for the Northwest Herald, it's easy to see where concerns regarding the appearance of unfairness come from.

Both of them – the recent one with the McHenry County Ethics Commission and another one seven years ago with the City of Woodstock's – carried significant baggage that called their integrity into question.

As I wrote in Aug. 30's paper, the McHenry County Ethics Commission is reviewing its rules and policies in the wake of criticism over how it handled its first-ever hearing of a complaint against a public official.

It all started with a picture which shows what appears to be Undersheriff and 2014 sheriff's candidate Andrew Zinke giving the middle finger to blogger Cal Skinner at a parade. Skinner filed a complaint alleging that an email sent by Zinke to dispute the allegation – during work hours and with his county email address – violated the ban on prohibited political activities.

The commission found in Zinke's favor at a July hearing in which I wrote that the commission looked like a group of people very much struggling with how to proceed. Zinke filed a counter-complaint alleging that Skinner's grievance was frivolous – which carries a fine of up to $5,000 – but Zinke never followed through with it. The commission's Aug. 30 meeting was originally scheduled to hear that complaint.

Both of these developments – the dropping of the allegation against Skinner and the commission taking a good hard look at its rules and the ethics ordinance – are good things. The fact that Skinner's complaint revealed some important concerns and perceptions about the integrity of the process gave it merit, which by its nature counters the Webster's definition of "frivolous."

Because this isn't the first time I've covered an ethics hearing in which some serious questions arose about the fairness of the whole thing. The first one put this one to shame.

Back in 2006, Woodstock-area resident Jerry Sufranski filed a complaint with the Woodstock Ethics Commission, alleging that the city council engaged in prohibited political activity when it passed a resolution supporting District 200's successful $105 million building referendum and encouraging people to vote.

I didn't think Sufranski's complaint had a leg to stand on – the law was clearly drafted to stop corrupt politicians from using public employees as campaign lackeys, not to stifle lawmakers' First Amendment rights. But for the record, Sufranski hit the bull's eye in opposing the idea that one government has any business helping another one raise our taxes.

(And as far as I'm concerned, Sufranski and everyone else who tried a decade ago to stop the rash of school referendums that jacked up our taxes to get ready for the housing boom that went bust deserve a medal.)

Under Woodstock's ordinance, the ethics commission consists of the mayor, the police chief and a third person selected by the mayor. Of the more than 14,000 adults that lived in Woodstock at the time, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, the mayor ended up picking a local businesswoman with deep ties to D-200 as a former employee, who had co-chaired a previous D-200 referendum committee, and who founded the city's weekly newspaper with another former D-200 employee in part to get more D-200 news into the community.

Nice lady and wonderful community member, but a lousy choice by the mayor. Whether by accident or by design, Woodstock city government sent a crystal clear message to its residents:  

Heads we win, tails you lose. You can't fight city hall. And don't any of you uppity sorts ever, ever, EVER forget it.

Sufranski didn't bother to show up at the hearing, for which he was chided after the commission reached its predictable conclusion. But who could blame him? I certainly didn't. If I wanted to open up a bar and the city council put Carry Nation on the liquor commission for my hearing, I wouldn't waste my time, either.

Fast forward to 2013. The ethics commission for county government seems to be very sincere in wanting to make sure the ethics commission looks, well, ethical. This is encouraging.

Of course, not all complaints are created equal. There has to be a strong mechanism in any government ethics ordinance to discourage using it as a political tool, or preventing county conspiracy theorists with way too much free time on their hands from filing reams of complaints accusing sheriff's deputies of not driving with their hands at the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions. I point to the $780,000 we've shelled out for special prosecutors as my Exhibit A.

However, the question has to be asked where to draw the line so as not to stifle legitimate whistleblowing or discouraging people truly interested in honest government.

It will be interesting to see what changes come from the healthy discussion the county ethics commission is having.

Because I can't think of anything unhealthier in a state rife with corruption than civic-minded people who witness something wrong keeping silent after asking themselves the dreaded question, "What good would it do?"

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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