November 28, 2011 09:43 AM
Some DuPage Board Members Have Spotty Attendance
DuPage County Board members get a decent salary, benefits, and are eligible for a pension if they put in eight years and at least 1,000 hours of service—but are the taxpayers getting their money's worth?
By Andrew Schroedter/BGA with the Daily Herald
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Meetings of the DuPage County Board and its 15 standing committees may not always be the most riveting events, but decisions made there can have a tremendous impact on the western suburbs’ more-than-900,000 residents.
Yet board member attendance at those meetings is often spotty, with five of the DuPage County Board’s 18 members missing roughly a third of their public board and committee sessions in the first nine months of this year, according to an analysis by the Better Government Association.
The BGA review of official meeting minutes also discovered:
- J.R. McBride (R-Glen Ellyn) missed more meetings than anyone – 40 board and committee sessions – but he said he had a good reason for many of those absences. He was recovering from a July surgery to remove a brain tumor, his fourth such operation in 11 years.
- Anthony Michelassi (D-Aurora) had 95 board and committee meetings he could have attended, but showed up for 59 of them, or 62 percent. That’s the lowest percentage on the board.
- Five board members missed 24 or more meetings, or about a third of their totals. Aside from McBride and Michelassi, they were Rita Gonzalez (D-Addison), Michael McMahon (R-Hinsdale) and Patrick O’Shea (R-Lombard).
- Five board members missed fewer than 10 board and committee meetings: Grant Eckhoff (R-Wheaton), Dirk Enger (D-Winfield), Robert Larsen (R-Warrenville), Jeff Redick (R-Elmhurst) and John Zediker (R-Naperville). Enger had the best attendance numbers on the board. He made 90 of 95 meetings, or roughly 95 percent.
"The taxpayers pay us a good amount of money to show up at meetings," says Larsen, who missed one board meeting and seven committee sessions over those nine months.
But here’s the irony: those who miss numerous meetings get paid the same as the others – $50,000 a year. And they’re able to collect the same benefits.
To qualify for a pension through the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, all board members have to do is put in eight years on the panel and perform at least 1,000 hours of county-related work annually.
However, because those 1,000 hours are based on the "honor system" – in other words, with no time sheets – the BGA analysis raises questions about whether all board members enrolled in the pension plan are truly reaching that minimum threshold.
"I don’t feel you can justify your 1,000 hours" if you miss a lot of public meetings, says Enger, one of three board members who opted not to participate in the pension plan because they don’t believe a part-time elected position should accompany such generous retirement benefits.
Enger and several colleagues have said they’re in favor of requiring members of the county board to start documenting their hours, just like regular county employees. But so far no one on the board has publicly pushed for the passage of that rule.
There apparently are no rules requiring board members to attend public sessions, although there are political pressures, with elected officials not wanting potential voters to think they’re slacking.
The board generally meets twice a month, and members also typically serve on six or more board committees, which focus on specific topics that include transportation, public works and finance. Those committees often convene at least monthly and, like the board, are part of the legislative process through which members make laws as well as often-tough decisions on taxing and spending.
Some board members also serve on other sub- or ad-hoc committees, but the BGA didn’t include those meetings in its review, which included poring over the official minutes for nearly 200 board and committee meetings between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30.
The BGA counted fewer absences at board meetings compared to the 15 committees. One possible reason: board meetings are generally higher-profile, with sessions televised and attended by more media and voters.
But scheduling also is a factor. Committee meetings often overlap, causing a member to miss a session if an earlier one runs long. Board meetings, however, won’t begin until every preceding committee meeting has concluded.
So why did board members miss their meetings?
Gonzalez says she traveled a lot this year but could offer no other reason for her 25 total absences.
"It’s not a reflection of the job [I’m doing]," she says. "I’m running myself ragged. It’s quite common for people to get emails from me at 1 or 2 in the morning."
Brien Sheahan (R-Elmhurst), who missed 23 board and committee meetings, or 20 percent, adds: "County board members don’t get vacation or sick or family leave time. So if you have a major event in your life . . . you’re going to miss some time."
That was the case with McBride, who’s been battling a recurring brain tumor.
"For as much money as we get paid, we need to be there," McBride says. "Unless you’re sick or whatnot, you shouldn’t be missing meetings. It becomes offensive to other members if you’re not putting in the time."
Reasons for missing board or committee meetings run the gamut, from vacations to illness, jury duty and even the birth of a child, according to interviews with officials. But some of them didn’t want to talk about the subject.
"I got nothing to say about that," says Michelassi, who failed to attend a single meeting of the environmental or public transit committees during the period that was reviewed. He also missed 10 finance committee meetings, the BGA found.
Don Puchalski (R-Addison), who missed 14 board and committee meetings, says officials who rack up a lot of absences don’t make a good impression.
"It sends the wrong message to voters: Why should they care if you don’t?" he said.
And voters are on the minds of DuPage County board members these days.
Every board seat is up for reelection in 2012, the result of this year’s countywide redistricting to reflect new census data.
Only one board member has indicated he is not running again: Redick. All other board members – except for O’Shea, who didn’t return phone calls – told the BGA they plan to be on the ballot next year.
One way or the other, board members "should be held accountable" for their attendance, says DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin (R-Elmhurst). He’s the 19th member of the board, who runs those meetings but doesn’t sit on any of the main committees. He hasn’t missed a board meeting so far this year.
"Attendance is an issue that should be debated in the community," he says. "They’re duly elected officials. I don’t ask them to punch a clock but I do ask them to be accountable."
This story was written and reported by BGA investigator Andrew Schroedter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9035.