Mike Sturino is at it again, folks, raising more eye brows than a Hollywood plastic surgeon. The guy started out his career as Village Administrator insisting he didn’t have to disclose his salary to the people who pay it. He then insisted for months that the professionals under him- grown, mature competent adults, I assume- who run the various village departments needed to receive his permission to speak with this newspaper. Now he’s insisting- insisting, darn it!- that it’s completely appropriate to put the mooch on various businesses that do business with the village.

In late September 18 village staffers were treated to a Friday matinee of the musical “Wicked” downtown, then had drinks and hors ‘douvres back at the village hall. According to receipts obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the bill for that outing came to $1,430. That bill, the FOIA’d documents show, was defrayed by $900 by a trio of $300 checks from vendors who do business with the village, including the law firm of Storino, Ramillo and Durkin, Christopher B. Burke Engineering, and Robert H. Anderson & Associates.

Confronted publicly with those facts two weeks ago, Sturino huffed indignantly, “If someone wants to criticize staff being recognized for their hard work, they can do so.” Of course, no one has criticized the recognition and rewarding of our hard working village hall staff. They’re criticizing the unfortunate manner in which that reward was paid for.

Sturino also opined, “I think it was the responsible thing to do, considering that we’re dealing with tax money. I don’t think the tax payers would have rather they paid for it.”

If Sturino insists on sticking to his current argument, he needs to resign as Ethics Advisor. Or be fired from that position by the mayor, not that that’s very likely. Whatever qualifications Sturino has as Village Administrator- and all indications are that he’s qualified- Sturino’s clearly not qualified in either training or temperament to oversee the village’s ethics policy enforcement. He views the issue, it’s clear, from a legalistic point of view. No laws were broken, he shrugs. So what of it?

Being ethical is about more than merely adhering to the letter of the law, and it’s troubling that Mike Sturino doesn’t understand that. He attempts to portray the criticisms of his soliciting vendors for cash as an attack on his attempt to show appreciation to village hall employees. But the criticisms that have been raised recently concern his judgment, and the clear appearance of a conflict of interest his actions create.

Sturino, a lawyer, should refresh his understanding of the legal term “prima-facie,” which refers to evidence that is “sufficient to raise a presumption of fact or to establish the fact in question unless rebutted.”

That’s exactly what Sturino has done, whether he cares to acknowledge it or not.

He also tries to paint ethics as stemming from law, saying, “Ethics are defined by law, not one person’s opinion.” Sorry, Mike, but it’s the other way around. Ethical concerns nearly always precede new laws, since ethics refers to modes of conduct that are usually more restrictive than existing laws.

Ethical considerations don’t just refer to the black and white prohibitions of laws or ordinances. No laws were broken back in the 1950’s when blacks were systematically- and legally- denied basic human rights like sitting at lunch counters or drinking from water fountains or voting. No laws were broken when Jews and other ethnic groups considered undesirable were excluded from membership in country clubs and other social organizations, and even denied the right to purchase property under restrictive covenants. No laws were broken all the long years that women were treated as second class citizens in terms of the vote and employment and educational opportunities under our legal system.

If someone can tell me how all of that being legal at the time made it right or moral or ethical, I’ll be all ears.

Frankly I believe that many taxpayers would be just fine with a budget line that covered an annual gesture of employee appreciation. After all, one of the reasons the village hall staff has had to be so hard working the past two years is because of questionable fiscal management by the village board over the past several years that has led to the lay offs of numerous village hall personnel. (Forest Park also no longer has a dedicated crime analyst to determine crime patterns because of cuts to the police budget- not that crime is a problem here.) The least the village could do, after making their employees work loads heavier is to offer a token of appreciation. I for one will gladly pay my share, since we’re talking about less than a dollar per household.

What I won’t accept is any arrangement that creates even the impression of favoritism or a “pay to play,” quid pro quo type of understanding.

Sturino told the FPR that the $300 checks the village received from those three vendors were favors, and that his solicitations of those vendors were “laid back,” as if that means anything. There should be no favoritism, whether it’s the village getting $300 a pop from vendors whose livelihoods rely on village contracts, or, for that matter, any trustee accepting free eats from a local donut shop. It just plain looks bad, and could come back to bite this village down the road if some spurned vendor makes a case for favoritism in a law suit.

It’s not much of a stretch to see a problem here. This town was thoroughly on the take back in the 40s, 50’s and 60’s, with far too many officials more than comfortable to at best look the other way. Just because the boodle doesn’t arrive in a black bag any more doesn’t make receiving it any more acceptable.

Sturino said two weeks ago that he was going to “publicly address the issue” at the next village council meeting. Here, paraphrased, is what he basically told Commissioners at that meeting:

“I took out some village employees, and a good time was had by all.”

Still not much of a rebuttal, Mike.