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posted: 4/2/2014 5:00 AM

Some lessons in looking out for taxpayers

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It long has been a practice of newspapers to gauge the attitudes of people holding public office toward taxpayers by keeping an eye on how they spend taxpayer money -- in ways large and small.

Spend money willy nilly on trips and conferences and meals, the theory goes, and there probably isn't a lot of fiscal propriety exercised when the big money is on the table.

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So it's standard operating procedure to check what types of conferences people in public office -- whether elected or on the payroll -- are attending and how they spend money.

Suburban Tax Watchdog Jake Griffin recently looked at how trustees from the College of Lake County spent $110,000 on travel and food over two years.

But a newspaper's role is not simply to expose questionable spending, bad behavior and corruption. It's also important to shine a light on those who do the right thing, with the hope that others follow suit.

Staff Writer Lenore Adkins looked at receipts for representatives of the two dozen or so suburban municipalities and counties who attended the four-day 2013 International City/County Management Association conference in Boston.

It could have been another piece that focused on the biggest spenders. But what she and her editors found most notable in all of the numbers was how little one town spent.

It attended the conference remotely.

Rather than book a round-trip ticket to Boston, book a room in one of the nation's most expensive cities, and charge meals, Lisle Village Manager Gerald Sprecher stayed home and attended via his computer. His cost to taxpayers: $299.

"Certainly the motivation when I first did it was financial," Sprecher told Adkins in her story earlier this week. He has been attending virtually for three years. "When the recession hit several years ago, there was a virtual prohibition on going to conferences, particularly out of state."

With municipal budgets drying up to the point where many could no longer afford to attend in person, the Illinois City/County Management Association started offering virtual participation. This year, five people from Illinois did just that.

With cynicism toward public officials at a fever pitch, it's good to know that some are really using their noodles. And some are, quietly, eating the cost for the sake of their town or to simply improve their skills.

Among them, Adkins wrote, Fox Lake Associate Village Manager Tara Semenchuk and Geneva City Administrator Mary McKittrick attended in person but paid for their transportation and meals.

Technological advances have created many rich virtual experiences for meeting participants. It would behoove those who attend conferences to weigh the advantages of being there in person with the cost savings of attending virtually.

And it's important to weigh the effectiveness of conferences before attending in any capacity.

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