By Michael Romain
In May 2010, Cheryl Ealey-Cross, who would run as a candidate for trustee in the following year’s election, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Village of Maywood. According to an article by the Better Government Association (BGA), she asked specifically for “‘All communication by board and staff to Economic Development Commission,’ meaning she wanted copies of meeting agendas, minutes, memos and other relevant documents, according to the lawsuit.” Her request was illegally ignored.
In August 2010, Ealey-Cross requested a copy of the municipal budget, among other documents. “The village was late in responding to the request, wrongly invoked an extension and provided only a ‘summary budget,’ not a line-by-line breakdown, according to the suit.’”
Through a watchdog group, Ealey-Cross obtained the services of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, one of the largest law firms in the country, which sued the Village, pro bono, on her and her three co-plaintiffs’ behalf. After Kirkland & Ellis stepped in, the Maywood residents, three of whom were running in opposition to the Maywood United Party in the 2011 election, got the documents they wanted, leaving observers to wonder what would’ve been if the law firm (and a media sympathetic to the citizens’ complaints) hadn’t intervened.
What’s more, the Village’s unlawful intransigence cost the taxpayer a significant amount of money in restitution and legal fees (a substantial portion of which went to Klein, Thorpe & Jenkins, the firm that employs Maywood’s village attorney, Michael Jurusik, whose legal counsel is supposed to help prevent a suit like this from happening)—to say nothing of time and energy that could’ve been used much more productively.
Such are the costs of suburban corruption, which, it appears, isn’t much different in regularity or nature than the city-specific corruption of popular imagination—replete with references to Daley-style pay-for-play schemes and crooked, Tammany Hall-owned judges. (In the second installment of this series covering this issue, I’ll talk about the 2012 UIC study on suburban corruption that helped to catalyze the movement to implement suburban OIG’s. Maywood was included in the study.)
What does, however, separate urban-style corruption from its suburban counterpart is the relative lack of what you might call ‘institutional vigilance’ in the suburbs. At least would-be crooks at the city and county levels are encouraged to think twice before they misbehave due to the presence of independent inspectors general. Suburban politicians and administrators, however, have no such threat.
It’s this lack of institutional vigilance that has led some suburban mayors and officials to petition the Cook County sheriff’s office for a redress of their many grievances. Vernard Alsberry, Jr., the Mayor of Hazel Crest, turned to the sheriff’s office after “he discovered that the village manager and two top employees had received double-digit pay hikes that he thought violated town rules,” according to a report by the Chicago Tribune. And at a July 2 board meeting, Maywood Mayor Edwenna Perkins made her own appeal, saying that she was acting on behalf of citizens who stepped forward and reached out to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
The Mayor put the motion up for “AN ORDINANCE ESTABLISHING THE OFFICE OF ‘INDEPENDENT INSPECTOR GENERAL OF THE VILLAGE OF MAYWOOD’ AND DESIGNATING THE COOK COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE TO HOLD THE OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL,’ apparently without putting it up for discussion at the Legal, License and Ordinance Committee (LLOC) meeting the week prior to the board meeting.
It isn’t clear why the Mayor took this approach, but she insisted, and Village attorney Michale Jurusik affirmed, that it was lawfully within her power to do so. “It doesn’t have to go on the LLOC, it’s on the [board] agenda, you can vote it up or down,” she said. “As I mentioned, it came to me and citizens want to take part in their government…I am [only] the host.”
According to the proposed ordinance, the Office of Independent Inspector General (OIG) “shall serve for an initial term of two (2) years and may be reappointed thereafter for successive two (2) year terms. The OIG shall serve without compensation.” The OIG will be charged with investigating a range of misconduct, that which falls in connection with “the Village’s award of any contract, license, or benefit;” that of “any Village employee”; and the “unlawful political discrimination” apparently demonstrated against Mrs. Ealey-Cross and company. [To read the entire proposed ordinance, click on each image below].
Cara Smith, Sheriff Tom Dart’s chief of policy, fielded questions from the Board and made her case for the ordinance. “Many people are distrustful of government at all levels. [the Office of Independent Inspector General, or OIG] is a very, very useful function and one that provides a lot of comfort for the people of Illinois,” she said. According to the sheriff’s office, the OIG is a service provided to Cook County suburbs at no cost to local taxpayers.
Trustee Ron Rivers, who seemed to be in agreement with the concept, was concerned about the lack of due diligence accorded to the idea and that the OIG might be redundant. “To me, this is a good deal, but normally we have a discussion period where we’d be able to ask you questions, but we just found out that it was on the agenda,” he said. “Normally, at an LLOC, we chew on things…”
“One reason why I’d like for it to go to LLOC is because I want to know how your office […] would coordinate or work with our police department on their investigations. Would it be redundant or overlapping?” Mr. Rivers said.
Ms. Smith assured Mr. Rivers that the OIG and the local police department would have different, clearly delineated functions. “It’s not overlapping and in certain cases, [OIG] investigators can work in conjunction with local investigators. But you won’t have the police department investigating oversight issues in the village.”
Trustee Audrey Jaycox wanted the item referred to an LLOC meeting, because “we usually try to contact the other communities to see what their issues are […] to see what their concerns are […] not to be for or against it, but to see what there concerns are…”
When Mayor Perkins put forward the motion to establish the ordinance, there was silence. A few moments later, Trustee Michael Rogers motioned, instead, that the Board vote to discuss the proposed ordinance at the next LLOC meeting, which will take place on July 10. The Board approved the motion 5-1, with Mayor Perkins providing the only dissenting vote.
If the Board approves the item at the next board meeting, Maywood would join the village of Dolton as one of the first Cook County suburbs to implement the OIG. Sheriff Tom Dart, while in talks with Hazel Crest, Riverdale and Harvey, actually “mailed a letter to all the villages and cities in Cook County—nearly 130 total—telling them to call his office if they want the same service,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
As mentioned, one can only wonder what would have happened to Mrs. Ealey-Cross’s and her cohorts’ complaints if the BGA and/or Kirkland & Ellis LLC had not intervened. What the case of Ealey-Cross and others makes rather clear (at least on the surface) is that the burden of proof is on any trustee who votes against this measure. In my continuing coverage of this issue, I’ll publish some FAQs and a list of the OIG’s possible pros and cons.
In the meantime, tell us what you think by taking the poll below. Are you for or against the Village establishing an independent inspector general office in Maywood? VFP