A new legal opinion by the Kane County state's attorney's office says one local elected official has a conflict of interest that several other politicians skirted for years.
Laura Curtis has her own appraisal business and passed an exam that qualified her to be appointed to the county's Board of Review in 2009 and serve a full term. In April, she was elected to the North Aurora village board. And because of that, the Kane County state's attorney's office says she can't serve on the Board of Review.
But a quirk in state law allows Kane County Board members the second taxpayer-funded salary that can exceed $22,000 if they can win an appointment to the Board of Review.
The county's three-member Board of Review hears property assessment appeals that number in the thousands every year. When the caseload of appeals gets too burdensome for that panel, the county board chairman can appoint additional members to help expedite assessment complaints. Those additional members receive a per diem payment of $80 each time they are called to serve.
The same additional members tend to be appointed to the Board of Review every year. Some of those people have been appointed for more than 20 years straight. Many of the appointees work in real estate or in the appraisal business on a full-time basis, but a few are current or former elected officials.
Former Kane County Board member Gerald Jones, of Aurora, is one of the dedicated three-member Board of Review. For that he'll earn a salary of $19,600. That money came on top of Jones' nearly $23,000 county board salary, pension and health insurance benefits until Jones lost his county board seat in November.
Jones isn't the only person to ever receive that double benefit.
Carol Schoengart and Don Wolfe also received additional taxpayer dollars for their service on the Board of Review during previous tenures on the Kane County Board. The pair were reappointed to the Board of Review this week as additional members. Joining them was Lee Barrett, a former Kane County Board member appointed after losing his seat on the county board.
The reason those people could receive two taxpayer-funded salaries at the same time, and sit on a county board that benefitted from the same property tax dollars their assessment appeal rulings affected, is state law makes a specific allowance for county board members to serve on both boards.
Curtis discovered this week that where the law doesn't see a conflict of interest in those cases, it does in hers.
"The offices are incompatible," reads an opinion delivered by Kane County Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Lulves.
The opinion was requested by Kane County Supervisor of Assessments Mark Armstrong. It relies on a 1979 opinion from the Illinois attorney general's office for its foundation. That 1979 opinion examined the possible conflict of interest involved with a township trustee serving on a board of review.
"A Board of Review member is required to be able to rule on review of assessment complaints that may originate from a taxing body," Lulves wrote. "Therefore, a Board of Review member may have to review an assessment of which he, as a member of the township board of trustees, a taxing body, has an interest on behalf of the township board. As a member could not in that case fully perform the duties of both offices, the attorney general held the offices to be incompatible."
Lulves went on to say the same conflict of interest exists between Curtis' village board seat and her would-be service on the Board of Review.
Curtis said she doesn't understand how the law could say she has a conflict of interest when so many Kane County Board members in the past have not. Curtis said the Board of Review handled fewer than 40 property tax appeals involving North Aurora during her tenure on the Board of Review.
"Meanwhile, Kane County vets some of the tax policy and tax levies the Board of Review deals with," Curtis said. "I would think that was more of a conflict of interest. I don't see why I couldn't just recuse myself from any North Aurora appeals. As it stands now, professional appraisers on the Board of Review need to recuse ourselves whenever an appeal involving one of our appraisals is involved."
Armstrong said the state's attorney's ruling makes a recusal not good enough for Curtis.
"If a Board of Review member is statutorily ineligible to serve, and then makes appeal rulings, someone could file a lawsuit saying they were denied due process because an ineligible person was on the board," Armstrong said. "I've also heard, only anecdotally, that if a member of an elected board is then appointed to an incompatible office, that means they've effectively immediately resigned their old board position. So if we did this with Laura, someone else could say everything she's voted on since then on the North Aurora village board is invalid."
Armstrong said he wishes the law allowed Curtis to serve.
"Frankly, we need every person we can get right now," Armstrong said.