By flouting ethics rules, tax commissioner sends wrong message to taxpayers

Board of Review Commissioner Tammy Wendt should abide by the ruling from the Cook County Board of Ethics.

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Tammy Wendt, Cook Board of Review Democratic primary candidate.

Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Tammy Wendt in 2018.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

If you’ve been waiting for the Cook County Board of Review, which handles tax appeals, to morph into a shining example of transparency and ethics, we have a word of advice.

Keep waiting.

The county’s Board of Ethics filed a lawsuit last week saying Tammy Wendt, one of the three commissioners on the Board of Review, violated the county’s anti-nepotism policy by hiring her first cousin, Todd Thielmann, as first assistant commissioner. The county’s ethics ordinance bans hiring a direct relative.

The Board of Ethics asked a judge to uphold its ruling that Thielmann be fired and that Wendt pay a $2,000 fine.

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“That the Board of Ethics had to sue is bad news for the public’s trust in county government and all government,” Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, said Friday.

We agree.

What goes on at the Board of Review matters to all Cook County property owners because the board’s decisions affect the real estate tax bills all property owners pay. The Cook County assessor sets assessments for each property, but the Board of Review can change them. Because it’s a zero-sum game, any time one piece of property gets a reduction, the taxes due from all the others go up.

To keep payments fair, everyone involved in the property tax system must be fully open and transparent. But that’s just not happening.

In typical Cook County political fashion, for example, when Thielmann filled out his job application he left this question blank, according to the Board of Ethics complaint: “Name the employees of the BOR [Board of Review] with whom you are acquainted or related. If related, please indicate relationship.”

Maybe that was an oversight. But now Wendt’s tussling with the Board of Ethics makes the situation worse.

Yes, an elected official can be tempted to hire a relative who can be relied on to do the job. But the history of nepotism in Cook County has been more akin to padding payrolls with non-productive family members. That’s why there are anti-nepotism rules.

Wendt, who was elected to represent the board’s First District in 2020, argues that as an elected official, she is not bound by the county’s rules. She says she complies with the vaguer Board of Review nepotism policy, which is a dubious argument. Even if that were true, it always appears improper when elected officials start populating their payrolls with well-paid relatives. Thielmann makes at least $150,000 a year.

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In a smoothly operating system, the three Board of Review commissioners would work harmoniously together to make sure they are all applying the same analyses of property taxes. But Wendt has been at loggerheads with the other two commissioners, Michael Cabonargi and Larry Rogers Jr.

The board also should be working closely with Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office. Kaegi has been working to make assessments more transparent and predictable and says a sign of progress is that tax appeals are down 30% from 2018.

But Kaegi can carry the ball only so far. We’re told the Board of Review refuses to share data and declines to collaborate with the assessor. For the system to work, both offices must be openly looking at the same indicators of property value. That’s not happening.

As a result, “We have a system that is opaque and that is difficult for citizens and taxpayers to understand,” Msall said.

Last year, outside researchers and county officials involved in the property tax system formed a property tax working group to establish best practices the assessor and Board of Review can adopt in unison.

It’s an idea that could benefit taxpayers, but it will work only if everyone involved is committed to transparent and ethical practices.

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