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Our View: Don’t make treasurer a county employee

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014 10:58 p.m. CDT

The DeKalb County Board shouldn’t need to hire someone else to be a liaison with other taxing bodies.

Even if they did, they probably shouldn’t make an independent county officeholder a county employee.

But that’s what board members decided to do last week when they voted to hire Christine Johnson, a Republican who is the county treasurer, as deputy county administrator for outreach. County Board members created the two deputy county administrator positions intending to give additional responsibility to existing staff members.

Most County Board members voted in favor of Johnson’s appointment, but three, Frank O’Barski from District 10, Misty Haji-Sheikh from District 7 and Mark Pietrowski from District 3, abstained.

“I don’t like the principle of elected officials being in county jobs,” O’Barski said. “There is too much potential for conflict of interest or an appearance that we’re a private club.”

Yes. In fact, this was a job opening that was not advertised to the public – it was open only to current county department heads. No outsiders were interviewed for the position. And this is the second county position to which Johnson has been appointed, after she was appointed county treasurer in March.

As the elected county treasurer, Johnson should not be considered a county “department head.” The treasurer is supposed to be accountable to voters, not to the county administrator.

Johnson’s new role as an employee of the county government can create a conflict of interest for her, because it could compromise her ability to be independent in her decision-making. Someone collecting a substantial stipend by working for and representing the County Board would seem to be less inclined to raise a fuss if they thought something was amiss.

That usually has a tendency to make the employer-employee relationship a bit awkward.

As county treasurer, Johnson earns more than $91,000 a year, a salary that no doubt is designed to be substantial enough that she shouldn’t need to be moonlighting as a deputy county administrator. She will earn a stipend of $7,800 in that position this year and by 2016, the stipend increases to more than $9,300.

Were there no other county employees interested in this opening? If not, there are 24 elected County Board members. It would seem that, if the County Board needs a representative at a local government meeting, it would be only natural for a board member from that district to attend, or failing that, one from a nearby district.

Johnson has government experience, having held the treasurer’s office for 17 years before a two-year stint as a state senator. However, having the county treasurer double as a county employee is ill-advised and unnecessary. 

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