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  Cook County was created on January 15, 1831 and named after Daniel P. Cook, Member of Congress and the first Attorney from the State of Illinois.

Board of Review runs afoul of state transparency laws, Wendt charges: ‘They want to…operate in the dark’

Tuesday, July 27, 2021
The Daily Line
by Alex Nitkin

A bitter internal dispute at the Cook County Board of Review has widened to include State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, as both offices have been enlisted to weigh in on accusations from one commissioner that the board routinely violates state transparency laws.

Raoul’s office opened a review into the tax appeal office after Todd Thielmann, chief of staff to board Comm. Tammy Wendt (D-1), filed multiple complaints alleging that the board has held private meetings in violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Comm. Michael Cabonargi (D-2) and Comm. Larry Rogers (D-3) deny they’re breaking any rules, saying they follow public meetings rules for “all official Board business.”

The outside review comes amid a widening rift between Wendt, who was elected last year to represent the board’s suburban 1st District, and her two counterparts, who have each served on the board for at least a decade.

Related: Victory in hand, Wendt plunges into historic appeals backlog with big power over property taxes

Cabonargi last month pushed forward a rule change to codify that Wendt was violating county nepotism restrictions by hiring Thielmann, who is her first cousin. Wendt denies that the hire crossed ethics rules, countering that the other commissioners are raising the issue to “deflect” from an FBI investigation into an alleged extortion scheme and the board’s endemic lack of transparency.

Wendt is pushing other offices to weigh in on the board’s meeting practices in part because she feels she’s been left out of policymaking decisions by the other two commissioners, whom she’s publicly described as “bullies” and “spin doctors.”

“Mike and Larry meet all the time on a regular basis,” Wendt told The Daily Line on Monday. “Everything that happens at the Board of Review is discussed without me, and the decisions are made by them.”

Wendt alleges those discussions amount to violations of the Open Meetings Act. The law holds that any time a majority of members in a public body meet to discuss official business, the meeting must be held in public.

“The Open Meetings Act is a black-and-white rule,” Wendt said. “They think they’re above the law. I realize it’s hard to abide by it as a three-person board, but it’s established law.”

Thielmann said he filed his first official complaint with Raoul’s office in April, when he alleged Cabonargi and Rogers met privately to pull strings with legislators on a bill (HB1356) that would have required candidates to hold law degrees as a pre-qualification to running for a seat on the board. The bill sputtered after Wendt and Assessor Fritz Kaegi came out publicly against it.

Related: ‘Good government bill’ to winnow Board of Review candidates draws heat from Wendt, Kaegi

Thielmann later filed another “request for review” after all three commissioners held a meeting to discuss hiring policies in response to a July 2020 watchdog report that found evidence of clout-based hiring in the office.

Related: Commissioners put Board of Review on notice over ethics, hiring reforms: ‘We fund you’

A spokesperson for Raoul confirmed on Monday that his office is “reviewing the matter.”

State’s attorney weighs in

Wendt also enlisted Cathy McNeil Stein, chief of the Civil Division in Foxx’s office, asking in a March 31 email if “we are bound by the open meetings act as Commissioners when we are discussing policy.”

“The short answer to your question is yes,” Civil Division deputy chief Amy Crawford responded that evening in an email obtained by The Daily Line. “We are not aware of any exceptions within [the Open Meetings Act] that would shield policy deliberations from the same requirement of openness that applies to any other discussion of Board of Review business.”

Rogers did not respond to a request for comment on Monday, but Cabonargi wrote in a statement that discussions of office hiring policy and Springfield legislation don’t fall under the category of “official” business as it’s defined under the Open Meetings Act.

“The Board of Review follows the Open Meetings Act and will continue to follow the Open Meetings Act for all official Board business, but our discussions of purely administrative, day-to-day functions of the Board are not covered by the act,” Cabonargi wrote. “These administrative functions may include things like the number of pencils we order to the new seating arrangements for employees due to COVID-19.”

Cabonargi and Rogers contracted attorney Keri-Lyn Krafthefer to represent them in the attorney general’s office probe. Krafthefer filed a “written response” to Thielmann’s complaints saying that discussions of the board’s human resources policy “has nothing to do with the public business that the board is statutorily required to perform,” she told The Daily Line on Friday.

“The Board of Review has a very limited jurisdiction and a very specific statutory function related to hearing complaints on property tax appeals,” Krafthefer said. “So commissioners cannot have a conversation that’s not in a meeting regarding the public business of the board…but if a blizzard is coming and commissioners want to let the staff go home early, we believe they can have a conversation about that without noticing a public meeting.”

Krafthefer, a partner at the law firm Ancel Glick, was enlisted as outside counsel to prevent the State’s Attorney’s office — which would typically represent the county in legal complaints — from having to take sides on an internal conflict among county officials.

But Krafthefer described a narrower interpretation of the state transparency law than Crawford of Foxx’s office, who wrote in her March 31 email that a wide range of Board of Review “policies” could trigger meeting requirements.

“Although the term ‘public business’ is not defined in OMA, case law indicates that OMA's provisions are to be construed in favor of openness,” Crawford wrote. “We are unaware of any case law that would support an interpretation that OMA only applies to certain ‘core’ decisions of the public body, but not to discussions and decisions about the body's policies.”

But Wendt holds that Rogers and Cabonargi “absolutely” meet privately to discuss critical policy functions of the tax office. “It’s a complete lie” to say Rogers and Cabonargi only meet privately to discuss “purely administrative functions” like pencil orders, she said.

“I know that for a fact because I’ve asked questions about policies that have already been made, and I have absolutely no input,” she said.

Wendt pointed to the Illinois General Assembly’s decision to draw a new map for the Board of Review’s three districts that made Wendt more vulnerable to a challenge in 2022. Wendt’s district, which currently snakes around the county perimeter to scoop up its most conservative pockets, was redrawn this spring to include most of Chicago’s predominantly Latino Northwest and Southwest Sides. Chicago Ald. George Cardenas (12) has since announced he’ll take a run at her seat.

Related: New Board of Review boundaries reshuffle Latino voters, lock in 3 safe Dem districts

“Is this Board of Review business? Absolutely,” Wendt said. “They drew the map almost to my front door. You think they didn’t discuss this?”

Thielmann also argued that discussions of the board’s hiring manual and job descriptions do not fall under the category of “day-to-day” or “administrative functions” either.

“What you call a job is policy — it’s [human resources] policy,” Thielmann said. “You can’t be any more clear than that.”

The back-and-forth spilled into the open during a June 29 public meeting called to certify the Board of Review’s appeal decisions for the 2020 tax year — one of three public meetings the board typically hosts each year.

“Nobody, no commissioner, should be violating the Open Meetings Act process,” Wendt said during the meeting. “And, in keeping with the law on that, we need to abide by it even though it's [not] convenient.”

Cabonargi countered that Wendt had refused to meet one-on-one with her two elected counterparts because she “interpreted the state’s Open Meetings Act to apply to the Board of Review.”

“That’s a unique impression,” Cabonargi said. “It is currently being reviewed by legal officers.”

Wendt denies nepotism charge

During the same meeting, Cabonargi put forward a motion — approved with Rogers’ adjoining vote — to update the board’s ethics policy so that it matches the Cook County Ethics Code to include “first cousin” in its definition of “familial relationships” that fall under hiring and lobbying restrictions.

Cabonargi referred the nepotism issue to Cook County Independent Inspector General Patrick Blanchard’s office. Blanchard declined to comment on Monday, saying he can’t disclose whether investigations are pending.

Wendt denied on Monday that she’s violated the county’s ethics rule, saying she has “no plans to fire” Thielmann. She also said she believes the county’s wider ethics ordinance does not apply to the Board of Review, and she cast doubt on the legitimacy of Cabonargi’s rule change.

“You can’t all of a sudden change a rule and then say you have to abide by it retroactively,” Wendt said.

The existing county ethics code applies to all “officials” and “employees” of the county, including those in separately elected offices.

Wendt also said she believes Cabonargi raised the nepotism issue as a “smokescreen” because she is “making waves” and exposing longtime issues in the office.

“I’m a reformer to them,” Wendt said. “I’m shining a light on the Board of Review, and they want to continue to operate in the dark.”

“Thank God I was elected, because things are starting to come out,” she added.

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