In late 2003, the Illinois General Assembly passed an Ethics Act that requires all units of local government to adopt a set of ethical regulations by May 19, 2004. The regulations were meant to act as a guide to ethical conduct in political activities and the giving and receiving of gifts.
In this respect, Forest Park seems to have been ahead of the game, as, since 1999, Forest Park has had an ethics ordinance in its books. The ordinance calls for a three-person mayor-appointed ethics committee that would make rulings on questionable political antics.
However, since the ordinance’s origin Forest Park has failed too appoint a single member to this committee.
The community watchdog group, Citizens United in Forest Park (CUinFP) sees a problem with this. In fact, it held a workshop on June 30 at St. Peter’s Church regarding the state mandated Ethics Committee and how it should theoretically work in Forest Park.
At the workshop, the group questioned why there has been no action in naming a committee and pointed out several flaws in the ordinance.
Mayor Anthony Calderone, however, said there has been no action due to procedural delays.
“We adopted the ordinance and then it was put on hold because a court found some problems with the ethics ordinance,” he said. “Then it was put on hold and they got things figured out and came back and said, here it is. The ordinance we adopted is the recommendation from the Attorney General’s Office.”
Regardless, during the workshop, several flaws were pointed out by Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizens Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, Ill.
Pastika graduated from Creighton University Law School and has been honored with several awards for her relentless work in pursuit of social justice.
After taking a close look at Forest Park’s ethics ordinance Pastika praised the ordinance as a good start.
“It’s not a 100 percent what we want but it’s a great starting point,” she said.
She continued to explain that many communities, including Forest Park, have taken a basic template for the ethics ordinance and have applied it to their own systems of government, which is not always the smartest thing to do.
The ordinance outlines a basic procedure the committee would have to follow: First a member of the community would have to fill out a complaint form and have it officially notarized. Once submitted the committee would have three days to hold a public hearing to decide whether or not to investigate the complaint.
If the committee decides to investigate the complaint the remaining process would be decided in closed sessions and eventually concluded with a public statement of the committee’s ruling.
This, Calderone said is where the difficulty in forming the committee lies.
“Quite frankly, in discussing this amongst 330-some mayors, most Mayors have not appointed the Ethics Commission,” he said. “The ethics commission is a reactionary ethics commission, it is not a proactive ethics commission”they do not do anything until a complaint is filed. The difficulty many mayor’s have had is because they are all appointed on the board, when [the members] ask the mayor [what they are supposed to do,] we say we you aren’t going to do anything until a complaint is filed.”
Calderone pointed out that no complaints have been filed in six years, so the committee would be sitting, waiting at their phones for work to do for six years.
Pastika’s also took issue with some of the provisions in the existing code, including the fact that there is no Whistler Blower Protection. Other communities typically have adopted a policy protecting those who step forward allowing them to stay anonymous.
“Without some sort of protection citizens and local government employees have a disincentive to step forward and make complaints,” Pastika said.
Her next area of concern was that Forest Park reserves the right to fine up to $2,500 and even incarcerate anyone for up to one year if the ethics committee finds a complaint to be frivolous.
This complaint in particular stirred the audience at the workshop.
One member in the audience exclaimed “oh, so they are really trying to encourage people to come forward,” upon learning of the fine.
Calderone said he is concerned with frivolous complaints, however.
“What I perceive happening, through members of CUinFP, is they will probably assert a complaint because a developer may make a legal campaign contribution to a local elected official,” he said. “This is not an ethics violation but they will assert that.”
Pastika encouraged all members of CUinFP to step forward and fill out an application for the Forest Park Ethics Committee saying “public pressure when used appropriately is a very effective tool.”
She explained that the committee should be proactive and be used as an education tool for the community and public officials.
“The problem is that public officials get elected or appointed and they aren’t given proper ethics training; it’s not as if there is an ethics handbook as required reading,” Pastika said. “They, like most people, need to be taught and regulated so that current bad decisions don’t lead to future bad decisions.”
For his part, Calderone said residents have always had the option to file complaints with the Cook County’s States Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office and continue to have this option.