New county ethics rules move forward

WOODSTOCK – A complaint filed last year by blogger Cal Skinner against Undersheriff Andrew Zinke prompted the decade-old McHenry County Ethics Commission to hold its first hearing.

It looked it – the five-member commission stumbled through the process. But it’s treating the experience as a learning process and is recommending changes to the Ethics Code as a result.

The changes unveiled and discussed Thursday more clearly delineate the steps the commission must take when asked to determine whether a county official either violated the gift ban policy or engaged in prohibited political activity.

Changes also include definitions of what constitutes a sufficient complaint and a frivolous one – omissions that critics pounced upon as the dust settled after the hearing.

“Citing the definition of frivolous is going to take some of the arbitrariness out of it,” Deputy County Administrator John Labaj told the commission Thursday.

The commission is expected to meet next month to officially forward the recommended changes to the County Board for approval – the commission is not empowered to change the ordinance on its own.

The first-ever complaint stemmed from a picture posted on Skinner’s blog which he alleges is Zinke, who has an acrimonious relationship with Skinner and other bloggers, giving him the middle finger at the Crystal Lake Independence Day parade.

Skinner’s complaint alleged that an email Zinke sent to County Board members disputing the allegation violated the 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.

The commission met July 25 to determine whether Skinner’s complaint was sufficient, but ruled, 4-0 with one member absent, in Zinke’s favor. A sufficiency ruling means that the commission forwards its findings to the State’s Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution. Engaging in prohibited political activity is punishable under state law by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Zinke filed a complaint against Skinner, subsequently dropped, alleging his complaint was frivolous, an offense punishable by a fine up to $5,000.

But the ethics code, which almost exactly matches the model ethics ordinance drafted by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office for local governments to emulate, does not define a frivolous complaint.

The new change defines a frivolous complaint as one that does not present “even a limited amount of detail,” lacks basis in law or fact, or is filed for “improper purposes” such as employee harassment.

Commission members said the definition needs to protect the body from being used as a political tool.

“We need to protect this commission from being used for that kind of vehicle,” member Scott Hartman said.

But Hartman also stressed the need to ensure that the rules do not discourage whistleblowers from filing legitimate complaints out of fear of facing one of their own. Hartman asked Assistant State’s Attorney Brandy Quance to amend the definition to state that a claim found to lack sufficiency is not automatically a frivolous one.

The commission will review its rules and bylaws once the County Board approves the ordinance revisions. Complaints arose on both sides at the hearing that the commission’s rules for hearing complaints conflicted with the ordinance the commission is tasked with upholding.

What it means

The McHenry County Ethics Commission is recommending improvements to the county Ethics Ordinance following a controversial 2013 hearing.

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