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3 ethics board exits later, Cook County commissioners unveil first draft of ethics code reforms
Thursday, September 24, 2020 Chicago Tribune by Alice Yin
After a nine-month lag in the Cook County ethics board’s plan to revise the ethics ordinance — as well as three member exits — the Board of Commissioners on Thursday unveiled a bundle of proposed reforms that mostly won the approval of two ousted ethics board chairs.
The changes are based on revisions that the ethics board, a body of five volunteers tasked with enforcing the ethics ordinance, voted in favor of in January despite objection from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office that more time was needed to examine the language. Since then, two members reluctantly left after Preckwinkle opted not to reappoint them, and a third resigned in protest.
“We pulled together various issues that have been raised by both the ethics board (and) the other commissioners,” Laura Lechowicz Felicione, Preckwinkle’s special counsel, said in a call to reporters. “We have strengthened the ordinance with the proposed amendments that were introduced today.”
The suggested amendments to the county ethics ordinance were brought forward by Democratic Commissioners Larry Suffredin, of Evanston, and John Daley, of Chicago, and are backed by Preckwinkle. Commissioners moved the reforms to the legislation committee for further consideration in a 16-0 vote, with one commissioner absent.
Margaret “Peggy” Daley, a previous ethics board chair until Preckwinkle replaced her in January, said the reforms would be “substantive and meaningful.” But while she urged the board to quickly pass it, she said she was disappointed this version left out a definition of dual employment as any position that creates an “appearance of impropriety,” similar to the city of Chicago’s code.
“Prohibiting conflicting employment would help to end ‘Pay to Play’ politics,” Daley wrote in an email. “Until that happens, we will continue to see our elected officials leverage their positions for personal profit and sadly continue to watch them face criminal corruption charges. … With that caveat, these proposed reforms are a real win for the citizens of Cook County.”
Juliet Sorensen, the second ethics board chair to be ousted by Preckwinkle this year, said the dual employment section also let her down. Nevertheless, the proposed amendments were a “thoughtful” effort to address the same “weaknesses and loopholes” the ethics board had tackled in January, she said.
The current proposal doesn’t include the same language on “appearance of impropriety” because the ethics board’s version was not clear enough, Lechowicz Felicione said.
“We actually tried to move away from that and focus on what direct conflicts would be as well as improper influence and believe that we strengthened the ordinance in that regard, instead of having a vague reliance on appearance of impropriety without really understanding what that means,” Lechowicz Felicione said.
The suggested dual employment restrictions do preclude any employee from maintaining another job that would impair their county duties. Officials with outside employment must within 30 days tell the ethics director and ethics board, who will publish those disclosures online.
The bans on improper influence, or leveraging a county position for personal benefit, as well as the type of situations that require recusal due to a conflict of interest would expand in scope. They would include any actions that financially benefit a relative or person whom the employee or appointee received or will receive compensation from in the next or previous year.
In addition, the changes include strengthening the language surrounding nepotism, adding a definition of sexual harassment to the ethics ordinance, and requiring the state’s attorney to nab the approval of the ethics board when settling its lawsuits.
Also during Thursday’s board meeting, commissioners voted 13-3 with one member present to extend Preckwinkle’s disaster proclamation, giving her 90 more days of expanded powers to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite more dissent during this vote compared with the first extension vote in May, Suffredin said “there has been no abuse of power.”
Longtime independent Inspector General Patrick Blanchard was reappointed for a two-year term as the county prepares to identify his replacement. The ordinance was amended to require the inspector general’s office to allow the department it is investigating to respond to its report before publication.
A preliminary 2021 budget for Cook County’s public health system, approved by its board of directors earlier this week, went to Preckwinkle on Thursday. She will fold it into the overall budget that she will present in October.
Meanwhile, commissioners finalized two of Preckwinkle’s appointments to the health system’s board of directors, Robert Currie and Raul Garza, and moved to the legislation committee the consideration of the system’s next CEO. That person’s identity is only known as “Candidate A.”
Alice Yin works the overnight shift at the Tribune, responsible for covering whatever breaks. She is a Medill School of Journalism graduate and was a statehouse reporter for the Associated Press in Michigan before being hired last summer by the Sun-Times. Alice likes to explore new restaurants, go jogging and frequent bookshops.