In a recession, the domino effect of nonpayments is unrestrained. People with lost income can't buy, which hurts people who sell, which hurts people who manufacture. And when someone holds back payment to his creditors, the result can be tragic. When that someone is an elected official and the creditor is the taxpaying public, it's immoral.
Such is the case with Wood Dale Mayor Kenneth Johnson, who fell behind by $9,000 on his payments for health insurance coverage offered as a benefit to city employees. A real estate attorney, Johnson had suffered the effects of the sagging housing market. Like many of his constituents, he struggled to pay what he owed.
The difference between him and those he serves, however, is that he discovered he could buy time through the city's coffers.
Johnson admitted last week that the city had covered his premiums since 2007, as reported by staff writer Elisabeth Mistretta. He said he had planned to make a lump-sum payment after winning a case earlier this year. The debt is now paid.
To his credit, Johnson had worked ahead of time with the city staff until he could reimburse the cost. But for three years? Did Wood Dale residents have any idea their mayor was using the local government as a lending institution, with city officials as his personal bankers?
What's worse is the city council covered for him by declining to publicly censure him. So not only was the mayor handed a no-strings-attached bonus from the city, but some of the city's aldermen those whose job it is to stand vigil over the public's money pretended not to notice.
Alderman Nunzio Pulice, one of three who voted for the censure, hit the mark when he said, "This makes us look like we're all in on something. The people need to know what's happening."
Elected officials cannot expect special treatment, nor should they keep the public in the dark.
Earlier this month, the Daily Herald revealed that an Avon Township trustee had received taxpayer-subsidized health coverage for two months, then canceled it before paying a dime. Like Johnson, he received something of value and should be expected to pay for it. In Johnson's case, it was essentially an interest-free, short-term loan.
Our leaders must face personal challenges in the same way as the people who voted them in. Residents pay extra fees on late utility bills. When money is tight, they make do without goods and services. That Mayor Johnson walked away with no repercussions is not just unfair, it's unethical.
Pulice added that he favors a future ordinance that would prohibit city staff members from making financial arrangements with elected officials. Wood Dale and all governments without such rules should give that serious thought. To achieve true transparency, deals made with a wink and a nod cannot happen in municipal offices. Nobody in them should get something for nothing.
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