The Village of Forest Park has established an Ethics Committee, which will meet in response to complaints of village employees violating the village’s previously existing ethics ordinance. However, some local activists have criticized both the ordinance and the new committee.
The committee’s three members, appointed by Mayor Anthony Calderone, will be Lillian Coleman, Cathy Garness, and Paul Barbahen.
Village Administrator Michael Sturino will serve as the committee’s ethics advisor. He will not vote with the committee, but will attend meetings and advise both the committee and village employees regarding the village’s Ethics Act.
Under the ordinance, which was adopted by the village from the Illinois General Assembly model, the commission will serve as a purely reactionary body.
It is authorized to conduct hearings and deliberations, impose fines and issue recommendations for disciplinary actions only in response to complaints filed regarding a potential violation of the Ethics Act.
“[The commission] shouldn’t be a political weapon”it should be a weapon to root out acts that are prohibited,” said Sturino.
Barbahen agreed, stating that he hopes the committee will never have reason to meet.
Among the prohibitions set forth in the act are:
Intentionally participating in prohibited political activity while receiving compensation from the village. This would include soliciting contributions or votes, conducting public opinion polls or circulating petitions in connection with a campaign, making contributions on behalf of a candidate, or working on a campaign for elected office or for or against any referendum question.
Accepting donations or gifts from prohibited sources. These sources include people who are seeking official action by a village employee or seeking to do business with the village or its employees and people engaged in activities that are prohibited or regulated by the village or its employees.
Gifts do not include anything provided on the basis of personal friendship, unless there is reason to believe that the gift was provided because of the recipient’s position with the village.
Gifts of food or refreshments valued up to $75 in a single day and other items valued under $100 in a single day are exempt. Village employees are permitted to return the gift or give it to a tax exempt charity in order to avoid violating the Act’s provisions.
Denying employment based on membership of a certain political committee, party, organization or club.
Some say it’s not enough
Members of the group Citizens United in Forest Park (CUinFP), who pushed for the commission’s establishment during two recent meetings, say they hope the commission will expand its powers.
CUinFP President Steve Backman said he would like to see the committee meet regularly, rather than solely in reaction to complaints.
“I think something pro-active could be done there … it might be a situation where you can pick up on the gray area between illegal and legal acts that are not in the spirit of government,” he said.
Calderone said those who have complaints that do not fit the boundaries of the ordinance are free to contact the several state and federal regulatory agencies that deal with those issues.
He said that Backman and others pushing for a wider ethics ordinance are “looking for an outlet to be able to object to anything and everything they don’t agree with.”
Sturino said that a pro-active ethics commission would be unprecedented in the state.
As a non-home rule municipality, the village is prohibited from extending the act beyond the guidelines set forth by the state, he said.
Backman also disapproves of a provision allowing the commission to impose fines up to $2,500 on those found to have filed frivolous claims, saying that this clause is likely to scare those with valid complaints away from coming forward.
He called for the drafting of a “more ethical ethics ordinance.”
Calderone said that the clause is necessary to ensure that the reputations of elected officials and village employees are not tarnished without reason.
“We want a clear message in writing that if you’re going to bring a complaint, you better be certain that complaint can be substantiated,” he said, noting that without the provision, village employees would have to hire an attorney each time a political opponent decides to bring them before the committee.
“I’m an optimist, and I’m hoping everybody will bring a common sense approach and a sense of fair-play,” said committee member Cathy Garness.
Some appointments contested
Another source of contention is Sturino’s appointment as ethics advisor. Backman said he was not comfortable with the appointment due to his uncertainty regarding Sturino’s own ethical practices.
He cited restrictions on interaction with the media by village employees imposed by Sturino as a primary example.
Sturino emphasized that he will serve on the commission in an advisory capacity only. “I am a resource for explaining to staff and elected officials the extent of the ethics ordinance,” Sturino said.
He said that he has drafted ethics ordinances for several municipalities in the past while in private practice, and would be providing workshops to village employees regarding Forest Park’s ethics ordinance over the coming weeks.
Sturino said that it is standard practice in most municipalities for either the village administrator or village attorney to serve as the advisor.
Backman also objected to the appointment of Barbahen, who currently serves on the village’s Historic Preservation Committee.
“He’s already got an appointment. There’s plenty of qualified people out there but [Calderone] favors this guy for some reason,” he said.
Barbahen said he anticipated that his dual appointment might raise concerns, and that, if absolutely necessary, he would be willing to step down from the Historic Preservation Committee since his work on its Historic Preservation Ordinance is nearly complete.