Forest Park’s Ethics Commission met for the first time on Tuesday, Sept. 20 to listen to a presentation from Ethics Advisor and Village Administrator Michael Sturino outlining the ordinance that they’ve been entrusted to enforce.
The commission, from now on, will meet only in response to complaints alleging violations of the village’s ethics ordinance, which it adopted following the Illinois General Assembly’s passing of the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act in 2003.
Paul Barbahen, previously the chair of the village’s Historic Preservation Commission, was unanimously voted in as chairperson of the ethics commission. He said he will step down from the other post as a result of the new appointment.
As his first move as chair, Barbahen, a practicing attorney, motioned to have all hearings conducted by the commission follow the Illinois Code of Procedures.
“I don’t think anyone should have their job at stake based on Robert’s Rules of Order,” he said, adding that if the commission did not follow state statute, their findings would likely be overturned regardless of accuracy.
The two other commissioners, Lillian Coleman and Cathy Garness agreed, deferring to Barbahen’s expertise on legal matters.
The three commissioners drew lots to determine the length of their initial terms, the result being that Barbahen will serve a one year term, while the others will serve for two years. If reappointed, all commissioners will serve two year terms in the future.
Some still seek expansion of ordinance
At its meeting on Thursday, Sept. 15, the group Citizens United in Forest Park (CUinFP), along with Terry Pastika of the Citizen’s Advocacy Center in Elmhurst discussed ways to make the ethics ordinance more proactive and “citizen friendly.”
CUinFP President Steve Backman sought Pastika’s guidance in continuing his push for an ordinance that would allow the commission to meet regularly and have the power to conduct its own investigations regardless of whether it had received complaints.
Sturino has said in the past that such an ordinance would be unprecedented within the State of Illinois, and that as a non-home rule municipality, Forest Park would not be authorized to expand upon the state statute.
Pastika disagreed, arguing that Forest Park is only required to adopt an ordinance “no less restrictive” than the one passed by the General Assembly.
“It didn’t say they have to adopt the identical statute,” she said.
“I would be delighted to see any examples (Pastika) would bring to me of another non-home rule municipality that has adopted an ordinance like the one she is suggesting we adopt,” said Sturino.
Regardless, a proactive role is unlikely to be embraced by the ethics commissioners.
“It’s not our job to go knocking on doors,” said Barbahen. “Do you want the police department to have a meeting once a month to say ‘we don’t like so and so, let’s go look under his doors?'”
“I don’t want that authority and I don’t think I’d want any governing body to have that authority,” he said.
Sturino agreed, stating that though he is interested in hearing any evidence of corruption of which CUinFP is aware, he is not willing to have the commission “go on some blind witch hunt” or “promote somebody’s political agenda.”
He said that a commission that is able to act in the absence of a complaint “is not what the General Assembly intended,” as it changes the jurisdiction of the commission.
CUinFP also wants to see the elimination of the clause in the act allowing fines of up to $2,500 or prison terms up to 364 days for anyone found to have intentionally made a false report of a violation.
“I would completely take that out ” it just deters people from moving forward,” said Pastika.
Pastika said that since the commission’s hearings are not subject to the Open Meetings Act, there is no reason for fines since nobody would know about a complaint unless it was found to be valid.
Barbahen again disagreed, stating that though the hearing might be closed, the person who filed the complaint is under no obligation to keep quiet.
“They’re living in a dreamland if they think nobody’s going to know a complaint was filed,” he said.
Barbahen said he would like to set up a meeting with CUinFP members to discuss their differences of opinion regarding the commission’s role.
The commission’s current powers
According to the ordinance adopted from the General Assembly’s model, the commission is authorized to impose fines of up to $2,500 or jail terms up to 364 days for violations in cases where a village officer or employee is found to have performed prohibited political activities including attending political meetings or campaigning while on compensated time.
The same penalties can be distributed to anyone found to have intentionally required another officer or employee of the village to perform prohibited political activities or awarded an officer or employee for participation in such activities.
The commission is authorized to impose a fine between $1,001 and $5,000 for violations of the Gift Ban Act, which prohibits village officers and employees from accepting gifts from prohibited sources including people who are seeking official action by a village employee or seeking to do business with the village or its employees.
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.
The Gift Ban Act does not apply to gifts given on the basis of personal friendship.
The commission is authorized to subpoena witnesses and information when investigating a complaint.
Sturino said he has and will continue to provide workshops to village employees to inform them of the restrictions set forth by the act.