On the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot, LaSalle County voters will be asked: “Shall LaSalle County eliminate the office of the elected County Auditor?”
The County Board voted 20-5 Oct. 10 in favor of putting the question on the ballot. Board members Mike Kasap (D-LaSalle), David Torres (D-Oglesby), Tom Walsh (D-Ottawa), Douglas Trager (D-Ottawa) and Brian Dose (D-Ottawa) voted against putting the question on the ballot.
The referendum is binding, meaning the county board will have to abolish the position if a majority of voters say yes.
If the majority of voters say yes, LaSalle County Deputy State’s Attorney George Mueller said the last day of the auditor’s position would be Nov. 30, 2020, when current Auditor Jody Wilkinson’s term expires. County Chairman Jim Olson, D-Seneca, said he believed the two positions in the auditor’s office would remain.
An election for a new auditor will run concurrent with the referendum on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot, but a new auditor will only be seated if voters decide to keep the auditor position.
“They’ll be running at their own risk,” Mueller said.
Olson said the item was put on Thursday’s agenda after 23 board members signed a petition to do so.
Russell Boe (R-Ottawa) said he wanted to put the question on the ballot early enough for potential candidates to know they would be running at their own risk of the position possibly being eliminated.
He said the financial issues in the county motivated him to lead the petition, as well as the August hiring of a financial director to help draft budgets and handle grant reporting.
“The financial director is handling a lot of what the auditor’s office should be doing,” Boe said.
When asked if the petition push had anything to do with recent issues in the auditor’s office, he said “it has nothing to do with that to me.”
Wilkinson and two auditor employees were charged in an overtime pay case last year, but Wilkinson was found not guilty by a judge, one of her deputies was found not guilty by a jury, and charges were dismissed for her other employee.
After being barred from her office last October, Wilkinson resumed her duties in May. The two auditor employees were fired in April. Wilkinson is pushing to get them reinstated through court proceedings, while the duo has asked the state labor board to review their case.
Dose, who voted no to putting the question on the ballot, asked the county board why they are looking at just the auditor position for elimination.
Since LaSalle County has more than 75,000 people, the elected auditor post is created by state statute, but the position is not constitutionally required. Other positions, such as coroner and recorder, also are not constitutionally required and may be eliminated through a public referendum.
In 2015, the county board opposed putting a question on the ballot to merge the recorder’s office with the county clerk’s office.
“If this is a financial thing, we should be looking at all offices,” Dose said.
He noted the auditor’s office has one of the smallest budgets of county departments. Its budget is roughly $127,000 for payroll and office supplies, he said.
Dose also pointed out the nature of the auditor’s job is to sometimes say no on certain expenditures, which makes it an unpopular post.
Board member Jerry Myers (R-Streator) who voted in favor of putting the question on the ballot, said the attention recent payroll issues brought to the office are why the auditor’s post is on the ballot.
After the meeting, he and Alan Erbrederis (R-Somonauk) said there are no requirements of anyone who runs for auditor. Erbrederis said by hiring a finance director to handle the auditor’s traditional duties, the county board can hire someone who is a qualified certified public accountant with a finance background.
The county auditor maintains a record of all contracts and agreements, identifies spending and control practices, performs independent internal audits, accounts for assets and reports on the county’s finances, among other duties.
Boe said none of the other counties he does business with have an auditor. Seventeen of Illinois’ 102 counties have elected auditors.
None of LaSalle County’s neighbors have an elected auditor, but only two of those counties have a population more than 75,000. When Kendall County’s population surpassed 75,000, its voters elected not to add an elected auditor position.
To Boe, he said it’s about letting the county’s residents have say on whether they want the position.
Kasap, who voted against posing the referendum question, said he would be more accepting of the referendum question if it had come from a citizens’ petition. Mueller said 10 percent of registered voters would have needed to sign a petition to bring the question to the ballot, meaning more than 7,000 signatures would have been needed.
“Any citizen from any political party can circulate petitions to have their name placed on the ballot to run for auditor,” Kasap said. “I believe everyone should have that opportunity.”
Wilkinson told Shaw Media on Wednesday she believed eliminating the elected auditor’s position is a horrible idea.
“If the county board has a personal issue with me, that’s their opinion,” said Wilkinson, a Democrat. “Due process has been served. Eliminating that elected position is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The elected nature of the position gives an auditor independence that an appointed auditor would not have.”
Wilkinson further stated her opposition has nothing to do with her political future, as she is not seeking re-election and has said so since her last election in 2016.
DuPage County Auditor Bob Grogan, who serves as president of the Illinois Association of County Auditors, said referendum questions to remove the auditor position have failed in Peoria, Tazewell and Champaign counties recently.
The county still would be required to conduct an external audit, many proponents of the referendum said Oct. 10. Grogan said an elected auditor performs a more extensive audit, potentially catching more small items over time, whereas an external audit does not go into detail.
In August, the County Board hired a finance director starting at $70,000 for new grant reporting standards and to help prepare budgets. The post is a possible alternative to the auditor’s position. Some counties without an elected auditor operate with a finance director, including Grundy County.
The County Board agreed to set the position to expire Nov. 30, 2020, in order to review the post concurrently with the auditor referendum.
Who voted in favor of posing the question eliminating the auditor?
Steve Tuftie, R-Ottawa; Russell Boe, R-Ottawa; LouAnne Carretto, D-Ottawa; Arratta Znaniecki, R-Ottawa; Curt Faber, R-Mendota; Joanne McNally, R-Mendota; Kindra Pottinger, R-Sheridan; Allen Erbrederis, R-Somonauk; Cathy Owens, R-Sandwich; Chuck Borchsenius, R-Sheridan; Gary Small, R-Utica; Randy Freeman, R-Lostant; Jerry Myers, R-Streator; Timothy Geary, R-Streator; Walter Roach, R-Streator, Elmer Walter, R-Grand Ridge; Norman Sedlock, R-Streator; Jill Bernal, D-Peru; Joe Oscepinski, D-Peru; Joseph Witczak, D-Peru.
Who voted against putting the referendum on the ballot?
Mike Kasap, D-LaSalle; David Torres, D-Oglesby; Tom Walsh, D-Ottawa; Donald Trager, D-Ottawa; and Brian Dose, D-Ottawa.
Board members Tina Busch, R-Tonica, Robert Lee, D-Seneca, Joseph Savitch, D-LaSalle, and Jerry Hicks, D-Marseilles, were not present.