Democrat calls for ethics reforms in Lake County

 
 
Updated 9/17/2018 5:54 PM
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  • Republican incumbent Ann Maine, left, and Democrat Susan Malter are candidates for the Lake County Board's 21st District seat.

    Republican incumbent Ann Maine, left, and Democrat Susan Malter are candidates for the Lake County Board's 21st District seat.

Democratic Lake County Board candidate Susan Malter said her top priority if elected will be ensuring "meaningful" ethics reform in county government.

Malter, of Lake Forest, is challenging incumbent Republican Ann Maine for the 21st District seat on the county board and the Lake County Forest Preserve District board. The groups have the same 21 members.

Malter is calling for greater economic disclosure by candidates for county offices and county employees. She also wants all public meetings to be recorded on video.

Maine said the county has "robust" ethics rules but acknowledged there's room for improvement. She supports hiring an independent ethics adviser and other changes.

Malter and Maine talked about ethics and other issues in candidate questionnaires and follow-up interviews.

Ethical behavior has been a prominent issue in Lake County since officials learned board Chairman Aaron Lawlor repeatedly used a county-issued credit card to make personal purchases. Illinois State Police are investigating.

Malter, an attorney, is especially concerned about nepotism and political patronage.

She believes political candidates, county officials and county employees should disclose the names of family members who conduct business with the county. Additionally, the county should ban "no-bid contracts" with relatives of officials or employees, she said.

Typically, government contractors are hired through a bidding process that rewards the company submitting the lowest estimate. Some professionals, including architects and lawyers, are hired without a bidding process, however.

Malter also called for all public county meetings to be recorded on video and for sessions to be broadcast on the county website. She complained about some officials' "bad behavior" at meetings.

"We must not only conduct government business with honor, honesty and respect for one another, but also use care to appear to conduct government business honorably," Malter said.

Maine -- a county commissioner since 2002 and the forest board's president since 2010 -- said the county's ethics ordinance has been "very effective" in situations she's faced.

For example, Maine said she regularly is asked for assistance by voters and business representatives applying for jobs or contracts, and she tells applicants county commissioners cannot intervene in the hiring process.

"(I) pushed for this change," said Maine, a senior lecturer at Lake Forest College.

Still, Maine acknowledged more can be done to ensure proper behavior by board members and employees.

She'd like the board to hire an independent ethics adviser who would field complaints and inform the board about changes in the law. The county's human resources director now handles those tasks.

An independent adviser would eliminate a conflict of interest and should make anyone filing an ethics complaint feel more confident about the process, Maine said.

Maine also advocates hiring a compliance officer who will perform random audits to ensure the county's ethics and purchasing rules are followed.

She opposes forbidding contracts with relatives of county officials or employees, but she supports a disclosure requirement in the application process.

A ban is unrealistic, Maine said. Lake County has about 3,000 employees, and such a prohibition would apply to tens of thousands of people.

"Members have recused themselves from voting on a contract if the firm employed a family member," she said.

Maine also objected to Malter's use of the phrase "no-bid contracts." State and federal laws prohibit bid-based selection processes for professional services, she said.

Malter's stance "shows little understanding of existing state and federal rules, our purchasing ordinance or (the) Lake County ethics ordinance," Maine said.

As for recording meetings, Maine supports the idea. She once advocated for televising committee-of-the-whole sessions, but the idea was rejected.

The 21st District includes Riverwoods, Lincolnshire, Bannockburn, Mettawa and Green Oaks, as well as portions of Deerfield, Lake Forest, Waukegan, Gurnee and Grayslake.

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