Village Administrator Michael Sturino said controversy was the last thing he expected when he decided to take a group of village hall office employees for an afternoon out on the town in appreciation of their hard work.
But the trip led to exactly that, mostly because of the way it was paid for. Though the village initially picked up the tab, Sturino said the plan all along was to call several village vendors and ask them to reimburse the village for the expenses.
This led to strong objections from Commissioner Terry Steinbach, who said she had confronted Sturino on the issue and after some heated debate, they had agreed to disagree. Though she acknowledges that no laws were broken, she said that, as the village’s newly appointed ethics advisor, Sturino should have higher standards.
“It may not be illegal but in my opinion it’s not ethical to ask our vendors to donate money for an employee appreciation outing,” she said, noting that she has had many conversations with both Sturino as well as other commissioners regarding the difference between illegal and unethical.
Sturino disagreed, stating that the reason laws exist is to avoid arguments over gray areas between different peoples’ individual interpretations of propriety. “Ethics are defined by law, not one person’s opinion” he said, referring to the village’s ethics ordinance, which was adopted from the Illinois Attorney General’s office.
He said that he had researched the legality of his actions, did not regret what he did, and would do it again. “I think it was the responsible thing to do considering that we’re dealing with tax money,” he said. “I don’t think the taxpayers would have rather they paid for it.”
Still, Steinbach is unconvinced, stating that she sees Sturino’s actions as pressuring vendors to pay to do business with the village, whether or not that was actually his intent.
“What happens if they don’t (agree to sponsor the trip?) I think it makes vendors feel obligated. In order to do business with the Village of Forest Park, you have to pay for that privilege,” she said.
Though she voted with the council to adopt the village’s ethics ordinance in August, she said she does not see the ordinance as an all encompassing ethical guideline.
“To me those are just arbitrary numbers somebody came up with,” she said, referring to the provisions of the state’s Gift Ban Act, which the ordinance gives the village’s ethics commission the power to enforce. According to the act, vendors are permitted to give a village employee a gift of food or refreshments valued up to $75 in a single day or other items valued up to $100 in a single day.
Steinbach said she had proposed an ethics ordinance for the village before Sturino was hired but that the ordinance got lost in the shuffle during the transition between village administrators. That ordinance, which she drafted on her own, had a “zero tolerance” policy for gifts of any kind from vendors.
“In my opinion you just don’t take money from vendors,” she said.
Steinbach said that Sturino had also asked several department heads to solicit their own vendors in addition to those he spoke to on his own. Sturino denied that this had ever taken place, but noted that he was not sure it would have made a difference if it had.
He said that his calls to vendors soliciting donations were “very laid back” and that no pressure was placed upon the vendors to comply.
Sturino said he sees the accusations as an attack on his attempt to show appreciation to employees. He argued that if his motives were crooked in any way the money would have gone to the department heads who participate in village spending decisions rather than a night out for office workers.
“I absolutely promote a sense of teamwork and appreciation for a job well done… If someone wants to criticize staff being recognized for their hard work, they can do so,” he said.
Steinbach said she had asked for an accounting of the evening’s expenses, but still has not received one. She said that the vendors that contributed included Christopher Burke Engineering and an insurance company employed by the village.
She estimated the cost of the evening, which included a matinee performance of the musical “Wicked” as well as dinner and drinks, as at least $1,500.
Sturino said he planned to publicly address the issue at the village council’s next meeting.