Naperville councilwoman says rule change could prevent campaign donations from influencing vote

  • Theresa Sullivan

    Theresa Sullivan

 
 
Posted9/4/2020 5:30 AM

Imagine a scenario in which a Naperville City Council candidate receives a large campaign contribution from someone who later petitions the city for a project, incentive or policy change.

The candidate, upon being elected, now faces the predicament of considering a proposal that is in the interest of a political donor, Councilwoman Theresa Sullivan said. Regardless of intent, she says, "what are the chances that generosity isn't going to weigh into my deliberations, whether consciously or unconsciously?"

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Preventing the influence of campaign donations on future council decisions is the goal of an ethics code amendment proposed this week by Sullivan. The policy change would require elected officials to recuse themselves from matters involving a donor who contributed $500 or more to their most recent campaign.

The amendment wouldn't alter campaign financing laws set by the state, she said, nor would it inhibit a candidate's ability to raise the funds necessary to run a successful campaign.

"At this level and in this city, we can choose to hold ourselves to a higher standard than we have to," Sullivan said. "I think it'll make us and Naperville better."

But Mayor Steve Chirico said he believes such a policy would be riddled with flaws and unintended consequences. Donors involved in future city business, for example, could see the move as a punishment for financially backing a political campaign, he said. That could affect a candidate's fundraising efforts, potentially giving an edge to those who are independently wealthy.

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His biggest concern, he says, is that the proposed amendment would suppress voters' right to choose the candidates they want.

"I feel like we're trying to solve a problem that's never existed," he said.

The timing and reasoning of her proposal are not specific to any action by current or former council members, said Sullivan, who has advocated for such a policy change since before she was elected. Though it may not be bulletproof, she and a handful of other council members said Tuesday the concept is worth exploring and directed staff members to draft an amendment for future consideration.

The ethics rule would likely be self-policed by elected officials, City Attorney Michael DiSanto said, meaning a violation would not result in criminal charges or a contract cancellation but could lead to censure or criticism from peers and members of the public.

Council members have always been expected to recuse themselves from issues they felt were a conflict of interest, Councilman John Krummen said. Forcing another elected official to step aside during a certain discussion "seems unfair," he said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But Councilman Kevin Coyne said the proposal touches on a "serious issue in politics" -- one that shouldn't be limited to petitioners. Objectors, vendors, unions and other parties donate to campaigns, too, he said, and could have just as much sway in city decisions.

"It's a serious concern to many voters," Coyne said. "I think if we are going to go down this road, we have to look at all of it and not cherry-pick."

Though there are some logistical holes that need to be filled, Sullivan said, the spirit of the proposal is to provide transparency and ensure elected officials are held accountable.

"Our constituents want to know that, when we or any future council members sit up here and take a vote, we're voting based on the merits of the argument and in good faith and using our best judgment," she said, "and that how much money we did or didn't collect from certain donors during our last campaign has nothing to do with that."

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