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Local

Policies vary to avoid conflict of interest


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Neighboring communities run the gamut when it comes to allowing elected officials to be contracted for city work.

In Belvidere, the practice is outright prohibited.

“It’s a conflict of interest,” said Belvidere City Finance Manager Pat Chamberlin, adding that she believes it’s an unwritten rule rather than something that’s set down in local law.

In Rochelle, two council members are paid on-call firefighters, who supplement the full-time fire department when needed. And another council member is a local real estate agent and developer whose business often brushes shoulders with city affairs, Rochelle City Manager Ken Alberts said.

“Whenever there were any issues or agenda items that related to his clients or his development, then, of course, he abstained from the voting,” Alberts said.

DeKalb City Council members are considering revising financial policy after it was disclosed that 3rd Ward Alderman Victor Wogen’s company was awarded six contracts totaling $52,000 in 2008. Currently there are no restrictions or requirements for disclosure on city officials winning contracts for public projects. The city is considering creating a more transparent process.

Rochelle follows similar guidelines as DeKalb when it comes to spending authority. Expenditures under $20,000 – such as those awarded to Wogen’s company – can be approved by the city manager without city council action.

But Rochelle’s city manager purposefully discloses aldermanic business ties with the city to other officeholders to avoid an appearance of conflict of interest.

“Part of my responsibility is to make sure they’re aware of it,” Alberts said.

Sycamore also defers to state law when it comes to local policy. However, there hasn’t been an instance of an alderman wanting to do work for the city that City Manager Bill Nicklas can recall.

“Obviously, the topic invites judgments about what is legal, but also what may be the appearance of a conflict,” Nicklas said. “Outside of the legal parameters, there’s always that question that the elected body has to determine.”

Nicklas said if the question ever came before Sycamore, “I would think that our elected officials would make that disclosure.” And Nicklas said if he was aware of an alderman having business interests in a project, he would disclose that information himself.

On county projects, DeKalb County Board members can also bid on a project, win the competition, and abstain from voting if the project comes before the board.

But county policy prohibits a county board member from being privy to the bidding process.

“The person who bids could not have participated in structuring the bid and could not know anything other than what’s been publicly released about the bid request,” DeKalb County Administrator Ray Bockman said. “They couldn’t use their position on the county board to gain advantage of the bidding process.”

Local policy differs greatly from city to city because each municipality is given its own  discretion on how it spends money, as long as it’s within the law.

The Illinois Municipal League, a statewide lobbying and educational organization for municipalities, advocates for keeping decision-making local. The IML defers to state statute when it comes to city contracts with aldermen.

Larry Frang, executive director of IML, said that interpreting that statute would require a legal opinion. He said the IML urges city officials to talk with an attorney to make sure they’re in compliance with the law. But the league has no stance on the ethical implications.

“There’s a lot of things we might give people advice on; conflict of interest is not one of them,” Frang said.

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