Most McHenry County municipalities have not established ethics commissions or advisers, despite laws that require them, records show.
In November 2003, Illinois legislators passed the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act, which required all of the state’s local governments to adopt an ethics ordinance.
McHenry County municipalities complied and passed ethics ordinances that regulate how employees and elected officials are to behave when it comes to using public resources for political activities and accepting gifts.
Most local codes also require the mayor to appoint an ethics adviser and a three-person ethics commission to review complaints. The model ordinance set forth by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office does not explicitly require an adviser and commission, but it’s “strongly recommended” that municipalities put them in place, according to state documents.
Chad Fornoff, executive director of the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission, said he fields ethics questions daily.
The commission oversees people in state government and universities.
“People need to know where to go when they have questions about the right behavior,” he said. “If there were an entity out there that could give advice, and people knew of its existence, they would be more inclined to seek advice in advance of any wrongdoing.”
McHenry County is in the process of amending its existing ordinance to allow municipalities to submit to the county’s existing commission’s judgment.
The Northwest Herald filed Freedom of Information Act requests with municipalities across McHenry County asking for records showing who the ethics adviser and commissioners were, along with agendas and minutes from any commission meetings.
The most common response was that there were no documents.
“We have no documentation that there was ever an active commission,” Marengo Deputy City Clerk Anna Leyrer said in response to the FOIA request.
“The commission has never been formed, as there has not been a matter for it to be formed,” Johnsburg Village Administrator Claudett Peters said.
Crystal Lake requested an extension on the FOIA request because “the specified records have not been located in the course of routine search, and additional efforts are being made to locate them.”
“The commission has never been formed, as there has not been a matter for it to be formed,” Harvard City Administrator Dave Nelson said.
McCullom Lake, Prairie Grove, Spring Grove, Lakewood, Bull Valley and Hebron also do not have commissions, according to FOIA responses.
“No one has ever expressed interest in serving on an ethics commission, particularly one that has not had the occasion to ever meet to consider an ethics complaint,” Hebron Village President Kimmy Martinez said.
Woodstock’s city code delegates certain positions to the commission.
The commission is to be composed of the city manager, police chief and a third member appointed by the mayor with the advice and consent of the City Council, according to the code. The assistant city manager and assistant police chief can stand in for their respective superiors, and the human resources director is the adviser under the code.
The city of Woodstock does not have an active commission, although one was called together at least once in 2006 after a complaint was made, according to city documents.
The complaint was made because the City Council passed a resolution that supported a Woodstock School District 200 referendum even though “soliciting votes ... for or against any referendum question” is prohibited political activity under ethics codes.
The city of McHenry also does not have an ethics commission or adviser. The City Council is in the process of working with McHenry County to establish an intergovernmental agreement that would allow the county’s existing commission to handle any ethics complaints McHenry might face.
The plan was launched after McHenry Mayor Wayne Jett mistakenly sent out an email from a city-owned account campaigning for 2nd Ward Alderman candidate Jim Walsh.
Jett said he would prefer to have a neutral party evaluate ethics concerns in the city.
“In my eyes, this is the best option,” Jett said.
The majority of council members said they agree.
“I think it’s great to use an outside source like the county,” 7th Ward Alderwoman Geri Condon said. “I am fine with waiting until that’s established. If there is an emergency, we can convene and figure out something else.”
Other municipalities also could take advantage of the proposal, and at least one has expressed interest.
The county is in the process of updating its own ethics ordinance and will write a clause that allows other municipalities to opt in, McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks said.
“It would be nice to have one standard for the county and all the bodies in the county,” Franks said. “This is the solution we can do for everybody. We can get the governments compliant and save the taxpayers money.”
The ordinance should be ready to present to the County Board within the next 60 days, Franks said.