Category Archives: Townships

School Districts, Residents Bear Some Responsibility for Lyons Township Troubles

So who’s to blame for the problems at the Lyons Township School Treasurer’s Office?

We have a few thoughts, but first, here’s a primer for those unfamiliar with the situation:

The treasurer’s office is a small but important government agency that manages more than $200 million in taxpayer money on behalf of more than a dozen school districts in the west suburbs. Recently it came to light that the treasurer for the past two decades, a politically connected appointee named Robert G. Healy, who reports to an elected three-person board, improperly cashed out unused sick, vacation and personal days to the tune of more than $500,000. Not only is Healy accused of doing this without informing the board, it wasn’t clear how many off-days he was entitled to because he’d ordered his staff to stop keeping track of his comings and goings.

In addition, the BGA found Healy’s investment strategy severely lacking. He hired cronies to invest and monitor taxpayer money, and they in turn donated money to a campaign fund he runs.

The BGA also raised questions about whether investment advisors were charging higher-than-normal fees, and putting taxpayer money in investments that violated the agency’s own policies – as well as state law. (One investment in an international bond fund – which apparently was not allowed – lost about $200,000.)

Healy ended up resigning, as did one of the three elected trustees, and now the board pledges to crack down and get a handle on the finances, among other things verifying that no money is missing. The affiliated school districts, including Lyons Township High School District 204, are getting nervous. This is, after all, their money, and there’s a lot of it in the hands of the treasurer’s office.

So we ask again, who’s to blame for things getting this far afield?

Healy is an obvious target. He’s a political animal, with little formal training in the financial sector, and it seems mistakes were made on his watch, though he insists he acted appropriately.

But who was watching him? Not the board elected to manage the agency and follow the money. Members had little or no financial experience either, and they gave Healy virtual free rein.

Outside consultants – some still on the payroll – apparently didn’t notice any serious problems.

In some ways the participating school districts (and by extension the residents of those districts) are just as culpable as everyone else, if not more. It’s their money, and they haven’t been watching over it – except in District 101, an elementary system in Western Springs, where board member Marty Brown spotted irregularities and raised alarm bells with the BGA and others.

Getting back to District 204, the big dog in the western suburbs.

After the BGA and CBS2 published a story about the treasurer’s office troubles, Huffington Post republished it with a photo of Lyons Township High School. We then fielded a snippy voicemail from a district official who was apparently irked about the connection of possible scandal to the school.

Too bad, there already is a connection: District 204, like the treasurer’s office board and most of the other school systems, was asleep at the switch and didn’t do enough to keep tabs on taxpayer money.

Perhaps school districts should worry more about preventing future troubles and – God forbid, once in a while show up at the treasurer’s office board meetings – rather than worry about their perceived image.

Let’s hope there’s not any money missing, that bad accounting and questionable investment decisions are fixed and not repeated. And let’s hope the public officials and residents in Lyons Township learn something from this situation – that paying attention can pay dividends, in every sense of the word.

This blog post was written and reported by the BGA’s Robert Herguth. He can be reached at rherguth@bettergov.org, or (312) 821-9030.

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Chairman of South Suburban College Board Takes Campaign Cash From Union, Approves Union Contracts

Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli

The union representing teachers and staff at South Suburban College has donated more than $60,000 to the elected official who serves as chairman of the South Holland school and helps set their taxpayer-funded salaries, the Better Government Association has learned.

Frank Zuccarelli has been on the board of the community college since 1978, and has served as chairman since 1987. He holds two other elected posts – Thornton Township supervisor and Thornton Township Democratic committeeman – and helps oversee several campaign funds that support his political activities.

The political action committee of the Cook County College Teachers Union – which represents more than 400 faculty and staff members at South Suburban College – donated a total of $60,053 to those funds since 1999, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

The most recent donation from the union – to a campaign committee called the Thornton Township Regular Democratic Organization – amounted to $1,250 and was reported on Aug. 29, state records show.

MORE FROM THORTON TOWNSHIP — 11/7/2011
Is This Township Official Living on Easy Street?

The community college board votes on contracts with the union – meaning Zuccarelli and his colleagues help set the pay and benefits received by teachers and staff.

Under a current contract expiring next year, the faculty received no raise in the first year and a 5 percent raise in the second, says Perry Buckley, president of the Chicago-based Cook County College Teachers Union.

The terms were not as sweet as the previous four-year agreement, which boosted the faculty’s pay by 5 percent a year, or by a total of 20 percent, Buckley says.

In fiscal year 2010, the average full-time faculty member at South Suburban had a base salary of $68,363, slightly higher than the statewide average of $66,582, according to Illinois Community College Board data.

Despite the apparent conflict of interest, Zuccarelli says he sees nothing wrong with accepting union donations. He not only has voted on every contract involving the union’s members in recent years, he says he plans to do so again after deals for full-time faculty and staff expire next summer.

Buckley likewise says he sees nothing wrong with the donations.

“We give money to people who we think can help us,” he says. “Do we support Frank because he’s chairman of the South Suburban College board? Yeah. . . . But there’s no quid pro quo.”

South Suburban’s administration has no problem with Zuccarelli pocketing the donations, and doesn’t believe they impact how he votes, says Patrick Rush, spokesman for the school, which serves about 17,000 students a year.

“The college doesn’t view it as a conflict of interest,” he says.

Rush apparently thinks highly of Zuccarelli.

Over the years, Rush donated more than $4,000 to Zuccarelli’s campaign funds, state records show.

This story was written and reported by BGA investigator Andrew Schroedter. He can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.

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How Ironic: Ex-Triple-Dipper Seeks Gov’t Jobs Cut

Illinois State Senator Steve Landek (D–Bridgeview)

In a way, Steve Landek is Mr. Government.

He’s worked for public agencies most of his adult life—starting at age 19 when he was elected to suburban Bridgeview’s park district board.

And until recently, he was holding down three public-sector jobs simultaneously—mayor of Bridgeview, state senator, and Lyons Township supervisor—in addition to the elected post of Democratic committeeman. Eventually, he stands to collect two public-sector pensions.

So Landek, 55, might seem an unlikely proponent of streamlining Illinois’ bureaucracies. And yet, he is among the lawmakers trying to give voters a bigger say in reducing the size of township governments.

He was a chief co-sponsor of Senate Bill 1907, which would make it easier to abolish township road districts within Cook County and outsource their pavement repairs and snow plowing—perhaps reducing the tax burden on local property owners.

Given his past employment, there’s a measure of irony to Landek’s involvement with the bill, which passed the General Assembly on May 29 and awaits Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature.

Illinois, 1875 -- 25 years after the first township was formed

He was the Lyons Township highway commissioner from 2008 until late 2010, overseeing maintenance on roughly 20 miles of unincorporated road in the west suburbs. He left to become township supervisor, which is the top administrative job in the township.

He resigned a few of weeks ago because, he said, he needed to focus on his other jobs, including the legislative position to which he was appointed earlier this year when state Sen. Louis Viverito resigned.

A quick primer on Illinois townships for the uninitiated (For a deeper BGA look into the ins and outs of Illinois townships, visit our partner policy blog):

  • Illinois township boundaries often cover more than one municipality. And within Cook County there are roughly 30 functioning townships.
  • Illinois township governments maintain roads in unincorporated areas and offer social services—for example, providing property tax advice, and operating health fairs and food pantries.
  • Illinois township leaders are elected and their operations are funded through property taxes.
  • In rural areas, Illinois township governments can have close interaction with the public. In populated areas, critics contend they are inefficient and redundant—meaning the services often are duplicated by other public agencies, or could easily be absorbed by them.

The Better Government Association not only supports Landek’s Cook County-centric bill, which would allow a local township board of trustees to submit a ballot proposition for voters to abolish a road district. We are also working on other legislation to streamline township governments across Illinois.

Landek said there are political risks to supporting a bill that could trigger job cuts at the 19 suburban townships with separate road districts (although it’s worth noting Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan sponsored the bill in the House, so it has political heft behind it.)

But Landek said local government needs to get leaner and more efficient, and townships are a good place to start.

“By eliminating the [road] division, you eliminate a measure of overhead,” he said. “It’s a small savings but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Despite the bill’s potential to save taxpayer dollars, Landek’s support could earn him a few enemies, said Viverito, who is Stickney Township’s supervisor.

“It’s not going to make Steve popular with township officials,” he said. “But a lot of people probably agree with him.”

So what’s the status of Landek’s bill?

It’s awaiting action by Quinn, whose spokesman told the BGA a “decision will not be made until we are finished reviewing the bill.”

Andrew Schroedter is a Chicago-based freelance reporter and BGA investigator. For tips, questions or comments, contact the BGA.

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