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updated: 11/22/2011 11:08 AM

Patronage settlement shows need for vigilance

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Daily Herald Editorial Board

Editor's note: This file was updated to correct the timeframe Bryce Carus served as Avon Township assessor. Carus served from January 2010 until June 2011.

There was a time when the idea of a newly elected politician taking office and replacing any employees who didn't support him or her was no surprise. It was cronyism as usual. It thrived in the wards of Chicago, and happened to one degree or another in many communities across the state and suburbs. But these days, that bygone era of politics is gone, right?

Not necessarily.

One need look no further than Avon Township in Lake County to find a case of old school, to-the-victor-goes-the-spoils politics in the suburbs, underscoring the need for government transparency and the reason watchdog groups shine a spotlight on elected offices large and small.

Attorneys representing Avon Township agreed to pay $450,000 to settle a federal lawsuit that claimed four former assessor office workers were fired or pressured to retire for political reasons in January 2010.

That's serious money, and it hits the community's pocketbook either to local taxpayers directly or in higher rates if insurance covers some or all of the cost, a determination that is not yet clear. Just as important is the black eye Avon Township suffers and the questions the settlement raises regarding how business is conducted there.

The actions of former assessor Bryce Carus, completed during am 1-month tenure, were particularly brazen.

The four employees who filed the suit -- William Rust, Penelope Heckel, Janice Roth and Michael Dishman -- all supported Rick Dishman, Carus' unsuccessful opponent in the April 2009 election. Several months after the election, Rust, Heckel and Dishman simply were informed they were fired. Roth had opted to retire because comments by Carus led her to believe she'd be fired for political reasons, court papers say.

Depositions in the case detailed Carus' hiring of friends, family and political cronies. The papers also show some of his hires for the assessor's office had no experience in real estate or property assessment. They included his 30-year-old son, who got a $23-per-hour job measuring property in assessment disputes and handling paperwork. Carus admitted in court documents his son never formally applied for the position and previously had worked in only one job, as school district janitor, since graduating high school.

Carus took office on Jan. 1, 2010, and resigned just six months later due to health concerns. However, his dubious legacy lingers today in the form of that nearly half-million-dollar reminder.

"We think," attorney Keith Hunt said, "it sends a strong message to these smaller units of government that it's not OK to base hiring on politics."

At whatever level, elected leaders today ought to know that patronage is just bad government. As the Avon Township case shows, it also can be expensive.