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updated: 4/5/2013 4:43 PM

Kane County shortens list of RTA applicants, heightens ethical spotlight

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Two former Kane County Board members remain on the shortlist of applicants to become the county's representative to the RTA board.

An opinion by the state's attorney's office has removed the legal concerns about violating an ethics ordinance by appointing either of those former board members. However, two board members are raising concerns of conflict of interest and violation of campaign promises.

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County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen released the list of finalists Friday morning:

• Manuel Barbosa, retired judge

• Don DeWitte, retiring St. Charles mayor

• Nabi Fakroddin, member of the St. Charles Zoning Board of Appeals; former director of the Kane County Division of Transportation

• Bonnie Kunkel, former county board member

• Jim Mitchell, former county board member

• Bernard Thomas, Pingree Grove village trustee

Along with the list came a letter from Assistant State's Attorney Joe Lulves stating his reading of the county's ethics ordinance does not preclude recent county board members from receiving the RTA appointment because the employment is with the RTA, not the county.

"By statute, the RTA is an independent unit of local government, body politic, political subdivision and municipal corporation," Lulves wrote.

But while Lulves' letter removes the question of the letter of the law, county board members may not be satisfied about violating the spirit of the ethics ordinance.

County board member Phil Lewis was chairman of the committee that oversaw part of the rewrite of the county's ethics ordinance. He wrote a letter to Lauzen and the state's attorney's office this week calling for the removal of all former board members from the appointment process, including Kunkel and Mitchell.

Lewis said, in his letter, the committee that wrote the ethics ordinance never intended for "an exemption to ethical behavior because the person we decided upon would not be paid by the county. If an appointment is paid, unpaid, (or) paid by another organization ... it has no bearing on the fundamental principles which are clearly spelled out."

The spirit of the ethics law fueled county board member Mike Donahue's withdrawal from the appointment process. Donahue bowed out earlier this week saying he initially didn't think his application posed a conflict, but further consideration made him decide "the spirit and intent of the ordinance, which we just reaffirmed last year, is to prevent current and recently retired county board members from receiving undo political consideration from their peers."

Donahue reaffirmed those thoughts Friday with a letter to Lauzen stating Lulves' legal opinion doesn't change his mind about the potential perception of cronyism if a former board member is given the RTA position.

"We have entered an era of hypersensitivity to the ethical behavior of elected officials," Donahue wrote. "Frankly, you and Mr. Mitchell have contributed substantially to this new paradigm with your denouncement of cronyism in Kane County government and calls for higher ethical standards. I therefore stand by my decision to withdraw from this process, and I encourage the others to do so as well."

Mitchell was one of the leading advocates of strengthening the county's ethics code. He also was a vice chairmen of Lauzen's election campaign. Mitchell did not responded to an interview request.

In a written statement, Lauzen addressed both of those concerns. The ethical concerns were addressed by Lulves' letter, Lauzen indicated.

"The opinion from the Kane County State's Attorney concludes, ' ... they are eligible to serve ...,' " Lauzen wrote.

As to any relationships he may have with any of the candidates, Lauzen said he knows all of them.

"Critics have suggested that I might not be able to impartially separate my friendships from candidates' credentials," Lauzen wrote. "However, I'm happy to report that I know all of these applicants, and they are all friends whom I know and respect. I hope that my familiarity with these distinguished individuals will not automatically disqualify them in the opinions of fair-minded people."

Lauzen said he intends to complete interviews with about half of the finalists by Monday. The county board is set to vote on the RTA appointment Tuesday morning.

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