$1,325 dinner for 11? Taxpayers cover hotels, dining, booze at conference
Hours after checking into the Hilton Chicago for the annual Illinois Municipal League conference in September, a contingent of six Addison elected officials headed out together for dinner at Carmine's on Rush Street that wound up costing the town's taxpayers $566.
Part of the cost was $77 spent on cocktails, including Mayor Richard Veenstra's $12 Seagrams 7 on ice, a $14 Lemondrop martini for Trustee Cathy Kluczny, a $15 Grey Goose vodka served "up" to Village Clerk Lucille Zucchero, and $36 for Deputy Mayor Tom Hundley's three Bacardis on the rocks.
"I don't think in America today there's a distinction between alcohol and food in meals, and in no way do I think it's excessive," Veenstra said when asked about the itemized bill obtained through a public records request. "We have done everything ethically and by approved policy."
Ultimately, Addison taxpayers spent $8,680.55 on registration, food, transportation and hotel rooms to send the six elected officials to a three-day conference 22 miles from the town's village hall.
Other suburbs also sent representatives to the Illinois Municipal League conference at a total cost to taxpayers of $119,431.64. A Daily Herald request for public records sent to 95 suburbs uncovered taxpayer-subsidized conference expenses in 50 of the towns.
While Addison was the only town whose officials charged alcoholic drinks to taxpayers, three towns spent more overall. Round Lake Beach, Lake in the Hills and Round Lake charged taxpayers $12,856.16, $11,071.50 and $9,170.85, respectively, most of it for hotel rooms. Another six suburbs -- Hanover Park, Wood Dale, Green Oaks, Round Lake Heights, Round Lake Park and Aurora -- each spent more than $5,000 for their delegations to attend the conference. Combined, the four "Round Lake Area" suburbs accounted for nearly 30 percent of all costs.
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Organizers also charged taxpayer-funded state agencies to operate exhibition booths at the conference, generating thousands of dollars in additional revenue from unwitting taxpayers.
"It's an absolute travesty that any money is being spent," said state Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican whose bill to curb travel expenses by public officials was signed into law last year. "Using taxpayer money to hire a lobbyist group like IML to come down to Springfield to lobby me and fight against property tax relief is something people are really sick and tired of, really sick and tired."
McSweeney's law requires public agencies to vote in public to approve the specific travel expenses and bans entertainment costs from being picked up by taxpayers. The dinners don't run afoul of the state's Open Meetings Act that prevents more than two elected officials from meeting simultaneously, unless they actually deliberate on public business.
The Hilton Chicago was the chief beneficiary of municipal spending on the conference, where the standard room rate for conference attendees was just under $300 a night, including taxes. The hotel was paid a combined $63,609.44 from 24 of the 50 towns that sent representatives to the conference. Several officials stayed three nights, according to invoices.
The hotel also made another $3,412.50 when 32 suburban officials had their cars valet-parked at $52.50 a night, even though the municipal league had worked out a special self-park rate of $25 a day.
"We were advised that self-park was full at approximately noon on Thursday. None of those individuals had arrived at that time," said Jennifer Clough, village manager of Lake in the Hills, where taxpayers spent $577.50 on hotel valet parking for four people.
Municipal league Executive Director Brad Cole defended the conference, saying the organization has looked elsewhere to host the massive event, but there are few places in the state that have the conference room space and the ability to house 2,000 overnight visitors. The lobbying group was paid $39,455 in registration fees for the 106 elected officials and 45 staff members from the 50 towns to attend the conference. The agency doesn't report its profits from the conference in its annual report.
"This is an easy target," Cole said. "But elected officials and senior staff really need to get additional training, and how they handle that in their own community, that's a specific decision for each community."
Sessions at the conference included: "An Epic Battle: Your Zoning Code Versus Their Religion," "The Right Way to Set Up Credit Card Payment," "Getting Squeezed by your Budget? Explore Cooperative Purchasing" and "Discipline & Discharge Bootcamp for Public Employers."
Some municipal officials pinched pennies to attend the conference. Downers Grove, Glen Ellyn, Lombard, Prospect Heights and Rosemont covered only the $165 one-day registration fee for the single person that attended from each town.
Others spent more freely.
Hanover Park taxpayers covered a $1,324.90 meal at Smith & Wollensky for the village's 11-member entourage. The meal included charges for a $124 "shellfish tower," three $67 "Cajun Marinated USDA Prime Bone-In Rib Eye" steaks, and a $98 "Chateaubriand for 2."
"Finding a restaurant in downtown Chicago is a challenge late evening following receptions for a large group," Hanover Park Mayor Rod Craig said. "The meal was expensive. Given it was a shared meal (it) seemed to make sense."
All told, taxpayers in 17 towns spent a combined $4,890.22 on food for the municipal officials attending the conference, according to the invoices.
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