Lake County Board formally bans harassment, bullying by its members

  • Jessica Vealitzek

    Jessica Vealitzek

  • Dick Barr

    Dick Barr

 
 
Updated 10/11/2019 11:00 AM
Editor's note: The story has been updated to reflect that Round Lake Beach Republican Dick Barr ardently criticized the anti-harassment rules but later said he supported most of the proposal.

In a move reflecting the #MeToo movement, new changes to the Lake County Board's ethics rules forbid commissioners from sexually harassing or bullying their peers, employees or constituents.

Violators could face written reprimands, public censure or loss of committee assignments. Violations by the board's chairman or chairwoman could result in removal from that position.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Filing false ethics- or conduct-related complaints about other members also has been prohibited, as has falsely representing a personal political position as the board's stance.

A divided board approved the changes Tuesday.

Ethics and oversight committee leader Jessica Vealitzek celebrated the new rules.

"One of the main reasons I ran for office was to improve ethics and transparency in county government," Vealitzek, a Hawthorn Woods Democrat, said in a Facebook post. "I said I would push for an overhaul, and that is what I have done."

The ethics committee, county employees and representatives of the Lake County state's attorney's office worked on the proposal for about nine months. The effort began shortly after Democrats took majority control of the board for the first time in county history.

The rules target action or communication that "mocks, demeans, puts down, disparages, or ridicules." That includes physical assaults, threats, intimidation, offensive jokes, name-calling, offensive nicknames and pornographic or offensive images, the policy states.

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Much of the language was taken from the county's employee handbook, advocates said.

"If we are holding our employees to that level of conduct, then we should hold ourselves to it," Vealitzek said during Tuesday's debate.

Although he later said he supported most of the proposal, Round Lake Beach Republican Dick Barr ardently criticized the anti-harassment rules and argued they violate members' free speech rights.

"I'm surprised to hear people defend the abridging of speech because we should be nice," Barr said, using a mocking tone to complete the sentence.

Barr said he and his peers shouldn't have to fear offending "a thin-skinned board member" who might file an ethics complaint.

"The county board is not a designated safe space, free from, at times, controversial speech or even negativity," Barr said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Barr found an ally in Fox River Grove Republican Michael Danforth, who said the rules could have a "chilling effect" on speech in the boardroom.

Far more board members disagreed, however. Among them was Libertyville Democrat Jennifer Clark, who said commissioners must maintain professional decorum.

"This is a workplace. This is my workplace," Clark said. "And I did not agree to be bullied, harassed, disrespected (or) disparaged."

The conduct rules, Clark said, will not stop "vigorous debate" in the boardroom.

Barr proposed sending the changes back to the ethics committee for a constitutional review by the state's attorney's office, but that maneuver was rejected by a board majority.

The ethics and conduct revisions eventually were approved by a 14-6 vote.

The changes cover more than harassment.

An independent hearing officer selected by the state's attorney's office now will review ethics- or conduct-related complaints. Previously, the ethics committee reviewed complaints.

Additionally, board members accused of ethical or conduct violations won't be allowed to participate in closed-door discussions about the complaints.

And in a stylistic move, the entire ordinance was renamed the ethics and conduct code.

Many less significant procedural and language changes were made, too.

Anyone may file a complaint alleging a violation of the conduct rules with the state's attorney's office. All complaints must be submitted using a special form.

The ethics committee will review the changes within six months to see if adjustments are needed, Vealitzek said.

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