DuPage County clerk controversy prompts push for change in state law

DuPage County Board Chair Deborah Conroy enlisted the help of state lawmakers to make it clear that countywide elected officials, such as the county clerk, need to follow state bidding laws and seek county board approval for certain budget transfers.

During a Tuesday evening county board meeting, Conroy announced lawmakers approved changes providing the “highest level of clarity” regarding competitive bidding and budget transfer regulations as they relate to countywide elected officials.

The changes to the state’s procurement law clarify that elected officials, including those with internal control of their office, must go to competitive bid for goods and services totaling more than $30,000. The changes, approved by lawmakers late Tuesday afternoon, also clarify a two-thirds vote of the county board is needed for budget transfer requests related to personnel or capital expenditures.

Both have been the topic of debate between the county board and county Clerk Jean Kaczmarek over the last two years. Recently, county officials and officials from Kaczmarek’s office clashed over unpaid bills for services that Conroy and other county officials said were never put out for bid.

“It is my hope that this measure leaves no doubt as to the intent of the General Assembly and the laws that govern the operations of elected officials’ offices,” Conroy said.

The legislation must be signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the law would not take effect until Jan. 1. Conroy, who said the bill had veto-proof support, indicated she did not want to wait until Jan. 1 for compliance from the county clerk’s office.

“Knowing the clear intent of our lawmakers and our legislative leaders, I ask and expect the clerk and her staff to adhere to the statutes and to work productively on behalf of the residents of DuPage County,” Conroy said at Tuesday’s meeting directing her remarks to Kaczmarek’s chief deputy clerk, Adam Johnson.

On Wednesday, Johnson called language in the bill “sloppy and imprecise.” He said the wording left questions as to who awards a competitively bid contract. If it is the county board, Johnson said that would erode the authority an elected official has over their office.

He added the proposed changes indicate the county “has been wrong all along” and that the county withheld payment on invoices the clerk approved “based on a law that previously didn’t exist.”

“This isn’t codifying anything,” Johnson said of the changes. “It’s a dramatic new change to the law.”

In an email, Kaczmarek said she had not yet made a decision on whether her office would challenge the changes.

“I would like to consult with other countywide officials around the state, most of whom are still unaware of this change that was hidden deep in an omnibus bill with zero open debate and a complete lack of transparency,” Kaczmarek wrote.

Johnson noted the changes don’t address concerns the clerk’s office has about the county board interfering with the way it operates and runs elections. The delays in bill payment and ongoing debate with the county board has prompted some vendors that provided election-related services to express hesitation about continuing to work with the county, Johnson said.

In her email, Kaczmarek said she plans to continue to fight for prompt payment to any vendors working with her office.

DuPage County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek

Conroy reiterated Wednesday that the law clarifies state bidding laws and that it is not the county board’s intent to micromanage the county clerk’s office.

Earlier this month, the DuPage County state’s attorney’s office indicated it would sue the clerk’s office for not following state and county policies. On Tuesday, the state’s attorney’s office said it would not pursue the lawsuit in light of legislative action.

“I have never viewed the issues with the clerk’s office as a dispute,” Conroy said. “The way I see it, in DuPage County, we value transparency.”

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