Daily Herald opinion: With new state law, county clerk should accept ‘clarity’ on spending duties

The first disappointment involving legislation aiming to clarify policies that make elected county officials, and specifically the DuPage County clerk, put spending issues for goods and services out for competitive bids is that the legislation had to be introduced at all.

But DuPage County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek left her county board few other options than to seek state influence to enforce its requirement that competitive bidding be used for contracts on goods and services procured by elected county officials. Against county policy, Kaczmarek repeatedly used no-bid contracts for projects she authorized and then further refused to appear before the county board to explain herself, steadfastly insisting that she alone is responsible for the actions of her office and she is not required to explain them to anyone. She said she was willing to put the county through a costly round of litigation to assert her position.

Fortunately, County Board Chair Deborah Conroy, a former state representative, knows her way around the legislature and was able to get a provision into a law that passed last week clarifying that elected county officials are required to use competitive bidding for purchases and services costing $30,000 or more and further requiring a two-thirds vote of the county board for budget transfer requests related to personnel or capital expenditures.

Both the purchasing policy and the budget transfers issue have been unnecessary sources of contention between the board and Kaczmarek for at least two years. Even if Gov. J.B. Pritzker fails to sign the bill, Conroy said it has veto proof support. So, DuPage County taxpayers, and taxpayers of all Illinois counties for that matter, should take some comfort in having, in Conroy’s words, the “highest level of clarity” regarding oversight and transparency over the duties and expectations of elected officials.

If not, that is, for the second disappointment, Kaczmarek’s continued resistance to the requirements of the bill. In an email to our Alicia Fabbre, the clerk said she hasn’t decided yet whether she will accede to the requirements of the law or fight it.

“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,” she wrote.

Last month, the DuPage County auditor identified nearly $400,000 in work Kaczmarek’s office authorized without following DuPage County’s established bidding procedures. Her only explanation has been a reference to state attorney generals’ opinions that she interprets to say she can do whatever she wants and no one but the voters at the ballot box can question it.

This is a terribly sad position for any elected official to insist on. Our leaders ought to welcome opportunities to explain their actions to the public, and they certainly ought to recognize and follow practices like competitive bidding that are intended to assure the best use of taxpayer money and transparent oversight of government spending.

It is beyond our understanding why Kaczmarek has taken such a hard-line stance on these issues. We once held her in high regard for her support for strong measures to assure public awareness of government business and close scrutiny of officials’ spending. Now, she seems to have succumbed to some defensive delusion that any effort to understand her practices is a bid to interfere with them.

Conroy, who has repeatedly stated she and the board — mostly Democrats, like Kaczmarek, by the way — are only trying to follow policy intended to protect the public interest, has unfortunately had to expend political capital with the legislature that might have come in handy for the county elsewhere, all just to settle an administrative argument that need not have occurred in the first place.

Thankfully, lawmakers have offered any needed clarity on the issue. We urge Kaczmarek to accept the will of her county board and the state and do what’s best for DuPage County taxpayers.

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