Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen campaigned on a platform of draining the swamp of political cronyism he believed existed in previous administrations, but his latest hire has several board members wondering if the drain has suddenly become clogged.
Now they'll begin an examination of whether Lauzen has run afoul of the county's rules.
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Failed Kane County Board candidate Robert Sauceda was announced Tuesday as the new billing manager for Kane County's Animal Control Department. About a year ago, Sauceda campaigned alongside Lauzen on the Reform Kane ticket during the 2012 primary.
His official hire date was Jan. 22, exactly one week after the county board, in a closed-door meeting, rejected Lauzen's nomination of Sauceda to be the new animal control director. Sauceda is now a temporary, seasonal employee in charge of collecting debts owed to animal control.
In an interview, Kane County Public Health Executive Director Barb Jeffers described the hire as a task given to her by Lauzen. She said she created the billing manager position at Lauzen's request. The position was not openly advertised.
Instead, Lauzen passed along Sauceda's resume as the only candidate for the job. Sauceda's position will be re-examined once a full-time animal control director is hired, Jeffers said.
County officials have not yet responded to a Freedom of Information request for Sauceda's employment contract and salary information. County board member Mark Davoust, however, said county staff members informed him Sauceda was being paid the equivalent of a $52,000 salary with no benefits.
But it's not the pay that has Davoust and several of his colleagues concerned.
"We're still operating under a hiring freeze," Davoust said, referring to a 2008 ordinance approved by the county board. "So I still have questions about the process. Under the hiring freeze it should still come before committee. How did we create a new position? I think it's important that we discuss how did we get here with this much deviation from the process that's supposed to be in place."
The 2008 ordinance declares, "No new personnel shall be hired unless specifically approved by the county board." But it also states, "Nothing in this resolution shall preclude the replacement of a future vacancy in a particular position with an existing employee so long as the total number of employees does not increase."
That may be the wiggle room that allowed for Sauceda's hiring.
Asked about the hiring process, Lauzen said Jeffers had the authority to hire Sauceda "within the current number of people on her staff."
Asked if he was sure that provision applied to newly created positions such as a billing manager, Lauzen said critics would better serve their constituents by focusing on getting a necessary task accomplished.
"We have a job to get done as opposed to getting tangled up in criticism that doesn't produce any cash for the taxpayers," Lauzen said. "We have to make sure we don't get distracted by the negativity and people throwing obstacles in the way."
County board member Jesse Vazquez said his questions about Sauceda's hiring aren't about creating obstacles; they are about following the rules. Vazquez doesn't believe there is any exception to the hiring freeze when a new position is involved.
"If we're not going to follow our policy, then why should any department follow it?" Vazquez said. "If that's the way our government is going to work from now on, then I guess everyone can hire anyone they want."
Lauzen does have some allies. County board member Deb Allan said she could be convinced of the legitimacy of Sauceda's employment as long as he's qualified and an emergency need existed. Allan said it may be that uncollected bills may have created some real fear with the agency meeting its payroll.
"They are supposed to be self-funded," Allan said. "If you're dependent on fees to fund your program, and you essentially have no fees, then you're over some sort of barrel. I've bought into the emergency scenario, but maybe I shouldn't have."
Allan said she is concerned the position was not opened to a full pool of applicants.
Lauzen doesn't just face questions about whether he followed the rules. There are also questions about hiring a known political ally.
"I have expressed openly that I didn't think it was a good idea to hire Mr. Sauceda based solely on the political connection," county board member Mike Donahue said.
Donahue said he first voiced that concern during the closed-door meeting where Lauzen put forward Sauceda's name to be the animal control director.
"There is a clear perception of a connection," Donahue said. "I spoke directly to the chairman when I said for that reason alone I would not bring this candidate forward if I were you."
Lauzen said it was at that meeting that board members suggested the hiring of a billing manager as a temporary employee.
"We're following the advice that came from board meetings, where I heard, get this job done," Lauzen said.
The county board's Human Services Committee will try to bring some clarity to the situation with an examination of the hiring freeze policy today. Davoust is the vice chairman of that committee. He said there are two key questions he hopes to answer in the process.
"You've got to ask how did this become OK," Davoust said. "And you have to ask if we have the right guy in the job. Right now, that's pretty debatable."