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Our view: Assessment corruption charges are maddening

Matthew Apgar -
Jennifer Cleveland of Genoa (front) leaves the DeKalb County Courthouse on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017 in Sycamore.
Matthew Apgar - Jennifer Cleveland of Genoa (front) leaves the DeKalb County Courthouse on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017 in Sycamore.

Kingston Township Assessor Jennifer Cleveland must resign.

Her past assessment reduction decisions should be closely scrutinized, and our state legislators should reconsider whether having popularly elected assessors in each township is really such a good idea.

Cleveland, 49, twice has been elected assessor of Kingston Township, and in both the 2013 and 2017 contests, she was unopposed. Township officials in general are free to carry out their duties with little public scrutiny, and those elected have a lot of leeway in how they run their offices.

But prosecutors said Cleveland went too far, forging documents in order to lower the property assessment on a home recently purchased by one of her sons. Records show she also has lowered the assessment on her own property.

County records show Cleveland’s son and daughter-in-law bought a house in Kingston Township for $295,000 in September. After the sale, Cleveland reduced the assessment by 20 percent. When Robin Brunschon, the county supervisor of assessments, requested paperwork to justify that reduction, prosecutors allege Cleveland forged the name of the previous owner on a couple of official documents.

Comments from her Facebook account on a previous Daily Chronicle story offered an apology for “what I did,” calling it “very poor judgment.”

Cleveland was indicted Wednesday on felony charges, including forgery and official misconduct, which carry a potential sentence of two to five years in prison. At the hearing, however, Cleveland told a DeKalb County judge, “I just thought this was something I could take care of today.”

It’s staggering to think that an elected official would view felony corruption charges as no more serious than a parking ticket.

The accusations against Cleveland represent a profound betrayal of the public trust. If true, they should anger everyone who lives in DeKalb County.

When an assessor lowers property assessments for friends, relatives or themselves, it doesn’t only benefit connected people. It also unfairly shifts more of the tax burden onto everyone else.

We suspect this kind of thing occurs much more often under our system of making townships responsible for assessments and having the assessors be popularly elected.

There are about 3,500 people in Kingston Township. How many of them are adults who are qualified to both fairly and equitably assess property and who are willing to do the job?

Since 2013, Cleveland was the only person even willing to do the job. So it was hers. 

Illinois would be better served if property assessments were determined by professionals working for our state’s 102 counties, rather than elected officials from its more than 1,400 townships.

Residents simply pay too much in property taxes to leave the assessment of properties to whoever files to run for assessor in an off-year, township election.

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