Members of Citizens United in Forest Park (CUinFP) met July 28 to discuss improving Forest Park’s current ethics ordinance and expediting the process of appointing members to the committee that is called for in the ordinance but has yet to be established.
The framework for Forest Park’s first ethics ordinance was adopted in 1999, but the ordinance itself was passed in May 2004 in response to an Ethics Act passed by the Illinois General Assembly in late 2003 that required all units of local government to adopt a set of ethical regulations by May 19, 2004.
The current ordinance calls for a three-person mayor-appointed ethics committee that would make rulings on dubious political actions. To date, no one has been appointed to that committee, though Mayor Anthony Calderone is currently taking names and has asked commissioners for suggestions.
Any Forest Park resident is eligible to serve on the committee.
At the meeting, CUinFP President Steve Backman summarized highlights from a workshop held on June 30 with guest speaker Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizens Advocacy Center in Elmhurst.
He said that a major reason there have been no appointments to the ethics committee is likely because the ordinance itself does not call for a committee that is pro-active and educational, but instead reactionary ” meaning that its job is mainly to respond to complaints.
Backman wondered if members of the ethics committee would even have the ability to vote on changes to the ordinance, or if those sorts of decisions would be out of their jurisdiction.
“The ordinance says that the committee will meet when a complaint is formed,” he said. “Is there a binding authority, or opposition to (the committee) doing things on their own?”
Backman said that people might be discouraged from bringing ethical issues forward since the current ordinance includes the possibility of fines up to $2,500 and a year in prison for superficial complaints against elected officials.
“There’s a real disincentive to try and take a course of action and bring an issue forward,” he said.
“Pastika thought these should be reduced to symbolic amounts, not something that will cause damage to the pocketbook,” Backman said. “The average person on the street is going to see those numbers and think, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with that.'”
Other flaws in the ethics ordinance discussed at the meeting include rules against filing anonymous complaints, the lack of a provision that limits the terms of committee members, and the fact that the ordinance only calls for only three committee members.
Several things mentioned in this list existed in an ordinance drafted by Commissioner Theresa Steinbach several years ago, before the Illinois General Assembly’s Ethics Act passed, according to Steinbach, who said that that version of the ordinance was lost.
“I don’t think that the ordinance we passed (in May 2004) is strong enough, but that’s just my opinion,” Steinbach said. “I am extremely interested in looking at the ordinance and making it stronger.”
Members of CUinFP also discussed the necessity of passing a resolution to adopt the Illinois Whistleblower Reward and Protection Act. The Whistleblower Act was enacted in 1991 by the state to expose fraudulent actions of state employees, politicians and contractors, and amended in 1995 to enable units of government to make the act’s provisions applicable to local public bodies.
To protect whistleblowers from their employees, the act sets forth specific penalties for “any employer who discharges, demotes, suspends, threatens, harasses, or discriminates in any way against an employee who acts legally in furtherance of the act,” according to a guide to the act from the Citizen Advocacy Center.
“Currently, if you work for the village and bring forth (potentially incriminating) information, you’re not protected,” Secretary Gloria Backman said.
“There’s definitely a lot of discontent ” employees are all in fear of discussing things too liberally and running the risk of being outsourced or penalized,” Steve Backman said.
The City of Chicago and Cook County have both adopted resolutions in support of the act.
Most of all, though, members of CUinFP talked about the need for more voices to speak up in support of a more pointed ethics ordinance, passing a Whistleblower’s Resolution, and appointing members to the ethics committee.
“For the 20 months we’ve been knee-deep in this stuff, we need some new faces,” Steve Backman said, citing letters to the Forest Park Review from like-minded people who could easily become more involved.
“We have less than zero influence over the process, but we’ll do whatever we can to get some new blood out there,” he said. “We’re available if people want information.”