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updated: 11/28/2011 10:15 AM

Some DuPage board members have spotty attendance

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  • DuPage Board attendance

    Graphic: DuPage Board attendance

 
By BGA investigator Andrew Schroedter

During the first nine months of this year, five of the 18 DuPage County Board members have missed roughly a third of the full board and committee meetings, according to an analysis by the Better Government Association.

A review of official meeting minutes revealed:

• J.R. McBride missed more meetings than anyone -- 40 board and committee sessions -- but he said he had a good reason for many of those absences. The Glen Ellyn Republican was recovering from a July surgery to remove a brain tumor, his fourth such operation in 11 years.

• Anthony Michelassi, an Aurora Democrat, attended 59 of a possible 95 board and committee meetings. His 62 percent attendance rate is the lowest among all board members.

• Three other board members -- Rita Gonzalez, Michael McMahon and Patrick O'Shea -- missed 24 or more meetings, or about a third of all they could have attended.

• Five board members missed fewer than 10 board and committee meetings: Grant Eckhoff, Dirk Enger, Robert Larsen, Jeff Redick and John Zediker. Enger, a Winfield Democrat, had the best attendance numbers on the board. He made 90 of 95 meetings, or nearly 95 percent.

"The taxpayers pay us a good amount of money to show up at meetings," said Larsen, a Wheaton Republican who missed only one board meeting and seven committee sessions over those nine months.

Attendance does not influence pay. All board members make the same $50,000 annual salary plus benefits.

To qualify for a pension through the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, all board members have to do is put in eight years and perform at least 1,000 hours of county-related work each year.

However, those 1,000 hours are based on the "honor system" -- in other words, no time sheets or other documentation is required. That might prompt questions of whether all board members enrolled in the pension plan are reaching that minimum threshold.

"I don't feel you can justify your 1,000 hours" if you miss a lot of public meetings, said Enger, one of three board members who opted not to participate in the pension plan because they don't believe a part-time elected position should come with such generous retirement benefits.

Enger and several colleagues have said they're in favor of requiring members of the county board to start documenting their hours, just like regular county employees. But so far no one on the board has publicly pushed for the passage of that rule.

There apparently are no rules requiring board members to attend public sessions.

The full county board generally meets twice a month, and members also typically serve on six or more board committees, which focus on specific topics that include transportation, public works and finance. Those committees often convene at least monthly and, like the board, are part of the legislative process through which members make laws as well as often-tough decisions on taxing and spending.

Some board members also serve on other sub- or ad hoc committees, but the BGA didn't include those meetings in its review, which included poring over the official minutes for nearly 200 board and committee meetings between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30.

There were fewer absences at full board meetings compared to the 15 committees. Full board sessions are generally higher-profile, with sessions televised and attended by more media and voters.

Asked about her spotty attendance, Gonzalez says she traveled a lot this year but offered no other reason for her 25 total absences.

"It's not a reflection of the job (I'm doing)," the Addison Democrat said. "I'm running myself ragged. It's quite common for people to get emails from me at 1 or 2 in the morning."

Brien Sheahan, an Elmhurst Republican who missed 23 board and committee meetings, or 20 percent, added: "County board members don't get vacation or sick or family leave time. So if you have a major event in your life ... you're going to miss some time."

That was the case with McBride, who's been battling a recurring brain tumor.

"For as much money as we get paid, we need to be there," McBride said. "Unless you're sick or whatnot, you shouldn't be missing meetings. It becomes offensive to other members if you're not putting in the time."

Reasons for missing board or committee meetings run the gamut, from vacations to illness, jury duty and even the birth of a child, according to interviews with officials. But some of them didn't want to talk about the subject.

"I got nothing to say about that," said Michelassi, who failed to attend a single meeting of the environmental or public transit committees during the period that was reviewed. He also missed 10 finance committee meetings.

Don Puchalski, an Addison Republican who missed 14 board and committee meetings, said officials who rack up a lot of absences don't make a good impression.

"It sends the wrong message to voters: Why should they care if you don't?" he said.

And voters are on the minds of DuPage County Board members these days. Every board seat is up for re-election in 2012, the result of this year's countywide redistricting to reflect new census data.

Redick and O'Shea have announced they won't seek re-election. All other board members say they plan to be on the ballot next year.

Board members "should be held accountable" for their attendance, says county board Chairman Dan Cronin. The Elmhurst Republican runs the full board meetings but doesn't sit on any of the main committees. He hasn't missed a board meeting so far this year.

"Attendance is an issue that should be debated in the community," Cronin said. "They're duly elected officials. I don't ask them to punch a clock but I do ask them to be accountable."

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