Friday, August 23, 2019 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
In December 2013 — several months after Edwenna Perkins was elected to her first term as mayor — the Maywood Board of Trustees voted unanimously to strengthen the village’s travel and expense approval policy in light of reports that at least one village official was violating the policy.
Six years later, the current board is still routinely violating the travel and expense approval policy.
During a regular meeting on Aug. 20, Trustee Kimyada Wellington scrutinized a series of reimbursement requests up for approval on the village’s most recent warrant list. All of the requests for approval that Wellington questioned were attributed to either Perkins or Trustee Isiah Brandon.
They included $120 donated to help purchase a porta potty for an event held in Forest Park by an organization that Perkins said is connected to Maywood and roughly $270 donated to help pay for entertainment and ice cream at a popup block party that Brandon said he helps sponsor each year in high crime areas throughout the village.
The money for the reimbursed purchases would come from the mayor’s and trustees’ stipends. Each year, each trustee is allocated $6,000 while the mayor is allocated $14,000 to spend on events and initiatives that have a public purpose.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Wellington questioned the process by which board members, in particular Brandon and Perkins, were getting reimbursed and also questioned the nature of the expenses themselves.
According to the board’s travel and expense approval policy, the mayor and trustees can use their stipends “in support of events, activities, and charities organized by, sponsored by, or conducted by nonprofit organizations or businesses that support or benefit the Village as a whole, so long as such events, activities, and charities are not political or campaign-related in nature or otherwise for a principally private purpose, and are authorized in accordance with the Village’s expense approval policy.”
The policy also states that “in order for an expense to qualify for reimbursement, all elected officials must submit a request for expenditure form, have the expense approved by the Village Board, and then submit a payment request form, including supporting documentation.”
Wellington wasn’t sold that a popup block party hosted in a particular section of the village or porta potties used in Forest Park benefitted the village “as a whole,” as the amended policy states. She also indicated that the proper supporting documentation was not available at the board meeting.
“A porta potty in Forest Park is not for the good of Maywood,” Wellington said. “Isolated events don’t benefit the whole of Maywood. A popup block party on 20th and St. Charles does not benefit the whole of Maywood. Is everyone invited to this popup block party? I didn’t even know about it.”
Perkins and Brandon insisted that they have supporting documentation like receipts to justify their expenses and that the expenses benefit Maywood.
The mayor and Brandon explained that residents sometimes request donations before there’s sufficient time for the board members to sign off on them. Sometimes, board members can’t be reached to chime in on the expenses, Perkins added.
“You have people calling you asking for support and you don’t have the opportunity to get in touch with trustees and finance to find out if you can do this event,” the mayor said.
Brandon said that the travel and expense policy is “something that we must work out,” before explaining that there were differing opinions on the board about how the expense account should be used.
“In the summer months, you will have a lot of activity happening with block clubs and different community events you should be supporting and helping to assist in some way and that’s a time when you should use your expense account,” he said. “There are a lot of philosophies about how it should be used and under what threshold.”
But Wellington said that the village’s policy is not a matter of opinion and should not be dismissed by board members when it becomes inconvenient for them.
“We’re operating like we’re a mom and pop shop and we’re not,” Wellington said. “When residents come to us, we can’t make rash decisions. We have to give them some push back and let them know that there’s an order to follow. If they’re making requests for donations at the last minute to sponsor a porta potty, [we have to tell them] we can’t do that, because we have to get approval from the board.”
Village attorney Michael Jurusik also chided the board for its inability to follow its own guidelines for spending public funds.
“We’re not following the expense policy as written, we struggle to do that,” he said.
The less than methodical way that board members use their expense accounts has prompted the ire of some citizens like Claudia Vandiver, who in the past has urged the board to do away with the accounts altogether, especially since some board members spend more than their $6,000 allotment.
For instance, Brandon has overspent his $6,000 allotment for the last two years. In 2017 and 2018, he spent $8,622 and $7,355, respectively. Perkins was under-budget both years, according to recent village budget documents.
It’s not clear whether or not those board members who have spent more than their allotments have paid the money back.
A chart detailing actual and budgeted expenses from the Board of Trustees’ expense accounts from a 2019 budget document. Asterisks indicate trustees who are no longer on the board (this document was drafted before current Trustees Miguel Jones and Nathaniel Booker were sworn-in). | Source: Village of Maywood
“Why do we keep doing things that are against the policy that we have?” said Trustee Nathaniel George Booker, who along with Wellington voted against approving the expenses. Trustee Melvin Lightford abstained.
The board debate on Aug. 20 was reminiscent of 2013, when the village amended its travel and expense approval policy after the Cook County sheriff’s Office of Inspector General released a report alleging that a former trustee spent thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds to take two dozen trips over four years and used her expense account money to donate to a political fundraiser.
The inspector general’s office recommended that the village “beef up internal controls how funds are spent and consider eliminating discretionary spending for trustees,” the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.
The former trustee in question, Audrey Jaycox, told the inspector general’s office at the time that “village rules regarding discretionary funds and travel were discussed when she was elected, but were not reviewed often and no one questioned her about the trips.”
That explanation, however, wasn’t enough for Perkins, who told the Tribune six years ago that Jaycox should have nonetheless followed the village’s policy.
“She knew the rules,” Perkins said. “She’s been a trustee since 2005, and she was chair of the finance committee.”
Perkins said on Tuesday that the board will have another discussion on the policy and could direct staff to make some changes to the guidelines in the weeks to come — a measure that some board members and Jurusik said was unnecessary.
“My suggestion is to follow the policy,” Jurusik said. “I don’t think the board needs to direct anything. It’s in writing. It’s already been approved. We’ve covered this ground many times. Just follow the policy. That’s an edict that goes to board members and to staff. Just follow the policy. End of story.” VFP
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