After a year of trying to make the law governing their behavior legally defensible, Kane County Board members threw it all out the window Tuesday and called on anyone who has a problem with its ethics code to sue them.
Tuesday's vote was a political land mine for board members. Every seat on the county board is up for re-election in November. Board members faced language that would have watered down some of its existing ethics regulations.
The changes were based on suggestions from the Kane County state's attorney's office to make the county's ethics code resemble a model promoted by the Illinois attorney general's office. Supporting weaker ethics is hard to explain to voters.
At the same time, county officials never really had a chance to live under the ethics code that will now be in effect. Former Kane County State's Attorney John Barsanti issued an opinion that the code was unenforceable right after the county board put the new provisions in place in 2010. It's been in ethical limbo ever since.
"I don't know that we've tried to enforce (this ordinance) in two years," said county board member John Hoscheit. "It looks good politically to say that I'm for the toughest ethics ordinance, but we're going to spend a lot of our effort defending this. The version that is before us now is less flawed than the previous ordinance."
Not enough board members agreed with Hoscheit to approve the changes. Board member Jesse Vazquez said it's time to take a stand behind the stronger ethics laws the county board originally passed.
"We really need campaign reform," Vazquez said. "We need to start it somewhere. Let's start it here."
Even the risky proposition of standing behind a law already declared unenforceable by two state's attorneys didn't convince everyone that real accountability has now arrived in the county. Board member Jim Mitchell led the push for an ethics law with proactive review of campaign contributions and economic interest statements. That push was not supported by the majority of the board.
"I have to apologize to the voters of Kane County," Mitchell said. "I had hoped we would come up with a strong and efficient ethics ordinance. It's obviously not going to happen with this board and this leadership. People keep talking about the model state ethics ordinance. There were two people who thought that ordinance was great -- George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich. We haven't gotten where I'd like to see us go. So if you want a strong ethics ordinance, this November will be the time to tell people."
County residents may be hit with a bill to defend the board's ethics ordinance if it is challenged in court between now and November. The law imposes standards of conduct for all the elected offices in the county including those over which the county board has no legal authority. It also sets campaign donation standards more stringent than state law. Those are all reasons Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon took a deep breath after the vote.
"All we're going to do now is go forward one step at a time," McMahon said. "If we get an allegation of a violation, and we think it's in violation of a section that is enforceable, and it's provable, we're going to pursue it. It's uncertain times. Like any law, someone can challenge it in court."
County Board Chairman Karen McConnaughay said she's not looking forward to any legal bills stemming from a challenge of a law elected officials were already warned about.
"I'm not saying this a bad law, but any time the taxpayers have to defend (this law) is disappointing and an injustice on their behalf," McConnaughay said.