How an ordinary homeowner forced reform upon an Illinois township government
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It’s tempting to give up on trying to change government, to think we’re powerless. We’re not. There are people out there fighting for change.
Kelly Cosgriff and his friends in Roscoe Township, north of Rockford, are among those people. Cosgriff has a dispute with some former Roscoe Township officials who reassessed his home and raised its value by 47 percent. He’s pursuing a lawsuit.
But that’s not the only action he took.
As Cosgriff was investigating his property’s assessment, he came across payroll records that indicated the elected township clerk — a paid position — also was being paid for assessment work, general township work and office manager work. The clerk was being paid $5,000 for her elected position, but also was pulling in $21,000 to almost $38,000 a year doing multiple jobs at the township for over five years.
Cosgriff first brought his concerns about this — that an elected official also was working as an employee for multiple offices within the township — to the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. That office directed him to the Winnebago County state’s attorney. Cosgriff also contacted the Township Officials of Illinois organization and state Sen. Dave Syverson, a Rockford Republican. And he petitioned Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato to review the situation, collecting signatures from a few dozen area residents, asking that criminal charges be brought against township officials for misuse of taxpayer funds.
Bruscato did not pursue criminal charges. He told me he declined to do so because he believed that the relevant law, and a 20-year-old attorney general opinion about the law, applied only to township trustees, not to clerks. Instead, Bruscato said he asked the Illinois attorney general for a new opinion on the law and is awaiting it.
But Cosgriff didn’t stop there. He put together a slate of candidates to run for Roscoe Township offices. In 2016, eight of the township incumbents withdrew their candidacies after Cosgriff registered an objection because they filed their paperwork late and with the wrong office.
Cosgriff and his slate won the election. He now is a township trustee.
The legal question remains: Can an elected township official also hold several other paid township jobs?
Bruscato awaits that fresh opinion from the attorney general. But state Sen. Syverson also took up the issue and drafted Senate Bill 2299. The bill would amend the Public Officer Prohibited Activities Act to say that a person elected or appointed to any township office — including trustee, supervisor, highway commissioner, clerk, assessor or collector — shall not be employed by the township in any other position except as a volunteer firefighter.
No one in the Illinois House or Senate opposed the bill, which now awaits Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature. If the governor signs the legislation, there will be no more confusion about what’s legal. If the bill becomes law and you’re an elected township officeholder, you can be paid only the one salary.
Cosgriff saw something he thought was wrong and waged a multi-front assault for reform.
“It’s very clear,” Syverson said, “that people should not be able to run for office and then get a (staff) job as well. The potential conflict of interest is that you’re basically your own boss. You basically could be hiring yourself.
“These citizens saw there was a problem and were willing to take back their government,” Syverson said. “They saw a problem, they stepped up to clean it up and that’s all they wanted to do.”
In McHenry County, county board members soon will vote on whether to put binding questions on the November ballot, asking voters if they want term limits on the chairman and board members. They will vote on whether to ban elected officials from buying or mailing items with their names on them in the lead-up to the election. And the board is set to vote in September on a plan to cut the board’s size from 24 to 18 members, beginning in 2022. Voters overwhelmingly favored a cut when they were asked in an advisory referendum two years ago.
“We’re not making the tough decision here, the voters are,” McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks said in a release. “They, at the end of the day, have to decide whether to term limit the county board.
“We work for the voters,” Franks said, “and it’s their decision to make.”
Change in government can happen. It does and it will. Remember that the next time you’re about to shrug your shoulders in frustration and give up. Resist that temptation.
Madeleine Doubek is the Better Government Association’s vice president of policy.
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