September 25, 2013

Communication breakdown thwarts attempt at government transparency

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By Robert Holly/CU-CitizenAccess.org — As a member of the Champaign County Local Foods Policy Council, Maya Bauer was required to file a form in 2012 disclosing her finances that might lead to a conflict of interest when she votes at council meetings.

But she said she did not file the form because the county clerk’s office never notified her that she needed to.

Another member of the food council, Christopher Henning, said he was also unaware he had to file the form, which is known as a statement of economic interest. He said he already filed one with the state because of his job at the University of Illinois.

Alfred Anderson served on the Mass Transit District’s board of trustees and on The Housing Authority of Champaign County’s board of commissioners. He recently retired from both positions. He said that he did not file a form in 2012 because he thought he was no longer required to.

But County Clerk Gordy Hulten said Bauer, Henning and Anderson were all required to file with the Champaign County Clerk’s Office in 2012 because they each held a position on a county body. And he said his office notified those three officials and all other did-not-filers several times about their need to file.

About three dozen officials still have not filed after repeated reminders, Hulten said last month.

Those officials said they simply didn’t know about the requirement or were never notified by the County Clerk’s Office. They were a small portion of the nearly 2,000 officials who are supposed to file every year. Earlier this year the list was about 60 non-filers.

Failure to file does not result in any fines or penalties, and on average only 16 percent or so of those filing actually disclose anything about their finances. Hulten’s office is not required to review the forms, and he said he has never had to refer a filer for lack of filing to the state’s attorney.

Their responses suggest that the Illinois statement of economic interest law, which CU-Citizen Access recently covered in a July article, may be even more problematic than originally reported.

“The County Clerk said that the requests for economic interest forms were sent out in May of 2012, although other folks seem to have not gotten them,” said Bauer. “I haven’t received such a thing, and I wasn’t told about it when I joined [The Local Foods Policy Council].”

"We’ll pester them until they do it."

— County Clerk Gordy Hulten

 

Economic interest law fails to provide open government

 

Christopher Henning, Zachary Kennedy and Maya Bauer, were on a County Clerk's Office list of required filers for 2012 that never filed.

Picture by: Darrell Hoemann

The Champaign County Local Foods Policy Council is one of the newest county bodies. Many of its members, including Christopher Henning, Zachary Kennedy and Maya Bauer, were on a County Clerk's Office list of required filers for 2012 that never filed. They said they were never notified and were unaware they had to. The foods council recently met for an August meeting at the Brookens Administrative Center in Urbana.

The state law requires government officials to disclose their financial interests. For instance, if an official performs paid legal or financial consulting for a private business, then that official must list that business as an economic interest.

For state positions, individuals file with the secretary of state. For county positions, individuals file with their county clerk’s office.

The law is meant to promote open government and discourage favorable treatment to anyone or anything in which they have a significant economic interest. However, for the law to work, officials need to know they have to file.

Every year, each local governmental body has to send The County Clerk’s Office a list of its members. From there, The County Clerk’s Office sends a letter to the members, telling them they must file the disclosure form.

For example, The Village of Mahomet must send a list to The County Clerk’s Office of the names of its seven trustees and one village president. Then, The County Clerk’s Office sends notifications to those eight people. In turn, those eight people are instructed to file forms with The County Clerk’s Office.

But the County Clerk’s Office does not validate the completeness or accuracy of the lists they’re given.

Gordy Hulten – who has held the county clerk position since 2011 – said that the notification process is routine, and that all required filers are notified multiple times that they need to file.

“We’ll pester them until they do it,” Hulten said.

Still, some 2012 did-not-filers said they are certain they never received a notification.

Zachary Kennedy is another member of Local Foods Policy Council that said he never received a notification telling him to file a form.

“I do not recall ever receiving a letter or any other form of notification stating that I was required to file a [statement of economic interest form] in connection with my position on the Champaign County Local Foods Policy Council,” Kennedy said in an email statement. “Had I seen such a letter, I would have definitely submitted my statement as I believe it is important to comply with this disclosure requirement.”

The Local Foods Policy Council is a nine-member body that was established in the summer of 2012. Its mission is to assist in strengthening the county’s local foods programs. Of its nine members, five did not file forms. The two others in addition to Bauer, Kennedy and Henning were Brad Uken and Becky Roach.

When asked specifically about the people on the foods council who didn’t file, Hulten said they were definitely notified “but can understand some people may have overlooked it.”

Some filers are able to navigate through the questions and provide substantive responses. They provide a glimpse of what the law might actually reveal if it were regularly enforced.

David Adcock had to file a form in 2012 because of his position as director for the Urbana Adult Education Program. He listed Parkland College under a section asking for other employers.

Connie Aldrich had to file because of her position as treasurer for The Village of Foosland. She listed the bookkeeping and accounting service she runs as an economic interest.

Hulten had to file because of his position as Champaign County Clerk. He listed The Devonshire Group and MSA Professional Services – realty companies – among his economic interests.

“It’s important for public officials to be accountable to what economic interests are being served by their positions,” said Bauer. “If the legislation were to work, it would be great.”

High compliance rate discourages penalties to did-not-filers

Christopher Henning at a recent Local Foods Policy Council meeting at the Brookens Administrative Center on August 28, 2013. Henning, like others on the council, did not file a form with the County Clerk's Office because he was unaware that he had to

Picture by: Darrell Hoemann

Christopher Henning at a recent Local Foods Policy Council meeting at the Brookens Administrative Center on August 28, 2013. Henning, like others on the council, did not file a form with the County Clerk’s Office because he was unaware that he had to.

 

During the notification and filing process, Hulten said that the County Clerk’s Office is simply the messenger and bookkeeper. It has no power to examine or enforce the required filing through fines or other penalties.

State law calls for fines of up to $100 a day from required filers that are late to submit their form. It also allows for the possibility of a Class A misdemeanor for those who willfully file false statements. The state’s attorney would be in charge of issuing those fines.

Neither of those possible penalties is currently enforced in Champaign County, but Hulten said that may not always be the case.

“The state’s attorney and I are in discussions about what’s the appropriate process to follow before you get to a fine,” said Hulten. “A fine may be in the future in Champaign County, but not right now.”

Neither Julia Rietz, the Champaign County state’s attorney, nor her office returned several email and phone requests asking for comment or an interview.

Hulten said one reason why there is no enforcement right now is because of the large number of required filers who do end up filing.

“We have such an incredibly high compliance rate already in Champaign County that, you know, issuing the threat of a fine or imposing fines seems overkill for what is a reasonably small problem at this point,” Hulten said.

About 2,000 people were required to file a statement in 2012. If only a few dozen people didn’t file, that means the compliance rate stands at about 98 percent.

However, a closer look at the statements themselves reveals a different story.

A recent CU-Citizen Access investigation of more than 9,000 statements filed by officials throughout the past five years found that only 16 percent of officials claim any economic interests when filing. Usually, filers write “not applicable” or “none” as answers to each question. They often don’t write anything at all. Instead, they merely draw a slash line or “X” on the question.

Most people are filing, but they’re not disclosing anything.

Some of the blame for the lackluster responses, according to Hulten, can be attributed to the convoluted and confusing phrasing of the questions.

For instance, the first question on the form directs filers to “list the name and instrument of ownership in any entity doing business with a unit of local government in relation to which the person is required to file, in which the ownership interest held be the person at the date of filing is in excess of $5,000 fair market value or from which dividends in excess of $1,200 were received during the preceding calendar year.”

“The actual legislative language that came out of the sausage-making process is so convoluted,” said Hulten. “It’s almost to the point where it’s deliberately obscuring the very information that the legislation is intending to make transparent.”