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updated: 1/25/2012 11:53 PM

DuPage Forest Preserve candidates debate finances at forum

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Fiscal responsibility and government accountability emerged as leading concerns Wednesday during a debate between DuPage County Forest Preserve candidates.

The Wheaton League of Women Voters hosted a two-hour forum at the Wheaton Park District for hopefuls in Districts 4 and 6, as well as for candidates running for seats on the DuPage County board. Forest preserve District 4 and 6 are the only forest races contested in the March 20 primary.

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In District 4, Republican incumbent Michael Formento of Glen Ellyn defended his record against Republican challenger Tim Whelan of Wheaton, who questioned whether Formento has been a good steward of taxpayer dollars. Democrat Robert Flesvig did not attend.

"I did not support increased salaries," Formento said. "I attempted to separate the question (when commissioners voted to increase their pay to about $57,000 annually), so I could vote separately on my particular salary. I was not extended that courtesy."

In addition to questioning commissioner salaries and pension benefits, Whelan also chastised officials' recent decision to award no-bid contracts to a computer forensics firm and a public relations company. Both were hired to help deal with the fallout of two employees who were discovered misusing thousands of taxpayer dollars.

"These contracts are wasteful and in violation of ... the ethical standards of Illinois," Whelan said.

Whelan said Formento was "asleep at the wheel" when the now-former employees were misusing funds, a problem that went unnoticed for about one year. But Formento said he was the commissioner who helped bring the issue to light.

"When I saw (a problem) I brought it to our financial staff ... I reported to the president. Yes, it took us a while to discover. When you are dealing with people's lives, you cannot make accusations that are ill-founded and that you do not have the facts to support. We got to the root of the problem."

The five candidates in District 6 also debated this issue, with most leaning toward Formento's view that the district needed to be cautious before firing the employees suspected of wrongdoing and submitting their findings to the DuPage County State's Attorney's Office.

Republicans Kory Atkinson of Roselle, Peter Connolly of Wayne, Al Murphy of West Chicago, and Arthur Pierscionek of Bartlett also weighed in on commissioner salaries, along with democratic hopeful Shannon Burns. All aim to fill the seat of longtime incumbent Roger Kotecki, who is stepping down from the seat he has held for 20 years.

Like Whelan, all agreed that commissioner compensation needs to be changed. But they differed slightly on how this should be done.

Murphy said he advocates a 20 percent pay decrease for commissioners, while Burns said she would like to see salaries lowered to the same level as county board members and to eliminate commissioners' annual 3 percent raise.

"We need to bring the board more in line with what the public is experiencing in this bad economy," she said.

Atkinson pledged he would not accept health care or pension benefits if elected, but said salaries are a tougher question. Pierscionek and Connolly also agreed, like the others, that they would forgo pension and health care benefits, and Connolly noted he has been serving as a Wayne trustee for 18 years with no compensation.

Candidates in both districts also debated whether it is ethical to accept campaign contributions from vendors and contractors who do business with the forest preserve. While most agreed it was not appropriate to accept such donations, at least in large sums, Formento and Atkinson stood out with similar views that this practice is acceptable.

"People who are supporting me know me, they know my character and that is why they want me to win," Atkinson said. "I'm not sure you can discriminate because of where they happen to work."

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