WOODSTOCK – A McHenry County Board committee had some words of encouragement for the county Ethics Commission as it seeks improvements in the wake of criticism of its first-ever ethics hearing.
Commission Chairman Thomas Spencer met Monday with the Management Services Committee, more than a week after the commission requested 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.
Much of Monday's discussion focused around the ordinance's lack of a definition of what constitutes a frivolous complaint. Blogger Cal Skinner, who filed an unsuccessful complaint in July against Undersheriff and sheriff's candidate Andrew Zinke, found himself facing a counter-charge by Zinke that his compliant was frivolous, which under the ordinance carries a fine of up to $5,000.
"This is one sentence in the ordinance without any guidance as to how to address it," Spencer told the Management Services Committee.
The commission at its Aug. 29 meeting asked the State's Attorney's Office for guidance as to whether language could be added to the ethics ordinance defining a frivolous complaint and enacting more stringent requirements restricting its ability to enter closed session. In a third request, commission members asked the office to explore changes to the commission's rules to more clearly define its role in hearing complaints alleging violations of the ordinance's two prohibitions – engaging in prohibited political activity and violating the ordinance's gift ban.
The ordinance as written now, Management Services Committee member Donna Kurtz said, could scare off people who want to come forward with ethics violations out of fear of facing a penalty if they fail. Its language is practically identical to the model ethics ordinance written by the Illinois Attorney General's Office.
"We've got penalties that are very specific ... yet we've got offenses that are very poorly defined," said Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake.
Skinner filed a complaint alleging that an email from Zinke – 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 in 2014.
The commission met July 25 to determine whether Skinner ’s complaint was sufficient. After hearing lengthy public comment from Zinke attorney Mark 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 and the counter-complaint against Skinner, raised concerns with several County Board members.
Gummerson had filed a motion for sanctions at the commission meeting alleging that Skinner's complaint was frivolous. While Gummerson and Zinke said they never officially followed through with it, the commission on advice from the state's attorney's office treated it as such until Gummerson withdrew it. But in the meantime, Skinner was forced to take the complaint seriously and hired an attorney, Robert Hanlon, to defend him.
Several Management Services Committee members insisted that the commission and the State's Attorney's Office reach out to the Attorney General's Office for possible solutions, in the hopes that solutions have been reached by other Illinois ethics commissions who have come across stumbling blocks in the law.
"How many other people have found themselves at this juncture?" said Anna May Miller, R-Cary.