Out Here: Full story, rather than just emotions

Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 4:49 p.m. CDT

Many people take a dim view of consultants who come into a workplace and try to find ways to make it more efficient.

Remember those hapless consultants, Bob and Bob, from the 1999 movie “Office Space”? Their search for corporate deadweight resulted in a disastrous promotion.

These days, the Lee County Board is talking about hiring a consultant to figure out the county’s staffing needs.

The biggest proponent for a consultant is board member Dick Binder, R-Compton. Too often, he said, the board makes hiring decisions based on its mood or what day it is.

Is he that far off the mark?

As with many public bodies, the Lee County Board makes budgetary decisions in response to emotional pleas. Let me give you an example.

In 2008, then-Coroner Richard Schilling, who was paid a little more than $30,000 a year, urged an increase to $40,000 for the next coroner.

Schilling, who was retiring, said the County Board had regularly given raises to other elected officials, but not the coroner.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Schilling said. “I think it’s on the verge of discrimination.”

Two board members immediately spoke up for an increase. One of them was member Greg Witzleb, R-Dixon, who is usually the most outspoken for more spending.

Another member, John Nicholson, R-Franklin Grove, proposed increasing the coroner’s salary by $1,500 each year for 4 years. The board rejected that amount; it was too little.

A proposal by Doug Farster, a former county Republican chairman, called for an immediate increase to $40,000. That passed 12-11.

In so doing, the board responded to emotions, but it didn’t get the full story.

Last year, Sauk Valley Media compared the budgets for the coroner’s offices in Whiteside and Lee counties.

In 2011, Whiteside County dealt with 70 percent more deaths than Lee County – 478 to 281. At the same time, Lee County’s coroner’s budget was $115,000 to Whiteside County’s $107,000.

Whiteside County’s population is 60 percent greater than Lee County’s.

In Lee County, the office has a coroner, a full-time employee who is the office coordinator and a deputy coroner; and three other deputy coroners.

Whiteside County, meanwhile, has a coroner, three deputy coroners and what Coroner Joe McDonald described as a “very part-time” secretary.

In short, according to the records, the Lee County coroner’s office spends more, but does less.

Perhaps Lee County has a good reason for that. But Coroner Jesse Partington didn’t have any explanation when we asked him last year.

Maybe a consultant – or the board itself – could figure that one out.

What about courtesy for public?

Public officials love to talk about how they support open government. But sometimes their deeds don’t match their words.

Recently, I asked Sterling Township Supervisor Matt Howze for the salary of the township road commissioner, Jim Lopez.

Any citizen is entitled to that information. Howze could have simply given it.

He didn’t. He told me I could get the salary amount from the township’s budget filed at the County Courthouse in Morrison. But no salaries were listed in those documents. 

He also said I could file a Freedom of Information Act request. I did. And while doing that, I also asked for everyone’s salaries.

But the township didn’t provide what I requested. It gave me a list of employees and categorized them under salary ranges – less than $15,000, $15,000 to $30,000, and more than $30,000. 

I asked again, and the township finally gave me the actual salaries. Lopez is budgeted for $44,000 a year.

Why didn’t Howze just give me that information in the first place? He said it was out of “professional courtesy” to Lopez. 

Howze added that he didn’t run the Sterling Township road district. He’s right about that. But under the law, he serves as the district’s treasurer. In other words, he oversees its finances, so he has a duty to provide information to the public, including annoying reporters.

Howze is a nice guy, so I was surprised to encounter his resistance.

Fortunately, a nonprofit group, For the Good of Illinois, posts the income of nearly every government employee in Illinois for the last decade at openthebooks.com. It’s a wealth of information.

As it happens, Lopez isn’t listed on the site, although others in the township are. 

Indeed, this kind of information should be readily available on each government entity’s website. Unfortunately, Sterling Township and others prefer to place roadblocks.

That’s why the For the Good of Illinois website is so important.

The other day, one government official in Dixon told me that he doesn’t like me, but he wants me to continue to write stories about townships.

“That dog is working,” he said. “Keep on it.”

We at Sauk Valley Media will. 

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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