October 15, 2012 10:39 AM
Spotty Attendance Continues To Dog DuPage Board
Analysis shows some County Board members still miss far too many public meetings -- especially for a part-time job that pays $50,000 a year and carries a taxpayer-subsidized pension. Have some of these officials "checked out?"
By Andrew Schroedter/BGA, with the Daily Herald
In the year since it was revealed that some DuPage County Board members had spotty attendance records, four of those officials have continued to miss meetings on a regular basis.
Now two of those members — Tony Michelassi and Rita Gonzalez — find themselves in closely contested races where their frequent absences have become campaign issues leading up to the Nov. 6 general election.
Meanwhile, the pair with the lowest attendance rates — Michael McMahon and Patrick O'Shea — aren't seeking another term and face questions about their commitment to a position that pays more than $50,000 a year.
"I still care about what happens with this county," said McMahon, a Hinsdale Republican who has attended only 35 percent of meetings in the last 12 months. "I have not 'checked out' because I'm not running."
The Better Government Association and Daily Herald examined the official minutes of more than 200 full board and standing committee meetings between Oct. 1, 2011, and Sept. 30 to determine the attendance records of all 18 county board members.
It was a follow-up to a BGA analysis that revealed five board members had missed about a third of their meetings in the first nine months of 2011.
Board members aren't required to attend the sessions — either way they still get paid a salary plus benefits. But to qualify for a pension through the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, they must perform at least 1,000 hours of county-related work each year, among other things.
The BGA/Daily Herald review raises questions as to how some members who miss numerous meetings are able to successfully satisfy that requirement, which is based on an honor system in which no time sheets or other documentation is required.
Since the release of the report last year, 10 of the board members have attended at least 90 percent of their meetings — up from only four a year ago.
Leading the way is newcomer Bill Bedrossian, a Republican from Wheaton who was appointed to the board in February. He attended all 56 of his meetings, while Winfield Democrat Dirk Enger missed only one, according to the review.
Several board members acknowledge the BGA report was one reason attendance has dramatically improved. "It was a wake-up call," says John Zediker, a Naperville Republican who attended 92 percent of meetings in the past year.
In addition to attending board meetings twice a month, members serve on multiple committees that focus on specific topics such as technology, development and public transit. The committees convene at least monthly and, like the board, are part of the legislative process through which members review proposed laws and allocate taxpayer dollars. "Attendance at the committees is absolutely the most important portion of the job of a county board member — other than taking care of constituents' concerns," said board member James Healy, who has an attendance rate of 91 percent.
The Naperville Republican says it's during committees that board members formulate new ideas and develop policy.
Even so, Michelassi, Healy's fellow District 5 representative, says the sessions are not as important as regular board meetings.
"Legally speaking, the county board votes are the only ones that are binding," said Michelassi, an Aurora Democrat.
But Michelassi's attendance at committee meetings has become an issue in his re-election bid.
Michelassi, Healy, Zediker and Republican newcomer Tonia Khouri of Aurora are vying for the three seats in District 5, which includes parts of Aurora, Lisle, Naperville, Warrenville and Woodridge.
While it still ranks near the bottom, Michelassi's attendance has improved since last year when he attended only 62 percent of meetings.
In the past 12 months, that rate has climbed to 78 percent, and he has missed only one full board meeting. However, his attendance for meetings beginning at or before 8 a.m. is at 50 percent. He suggested more meetings should be held at night.
"I don't see what makes us so special," he said, adding that municipalities have night meetings.
Michelassi's fellow Democrat, Gonzalez, of Addison, said it would be a mistake to infer that poor attendance means an official isn't doing his or her job.
While she has attended only 77 percent of meetings, she says she's still fighting for residents in District 1, which includes all or portions of Addison, Bensenville, Bloomingdale, Elmhurst, Glendale Heights, Itasca, Lombard, Roselle, Villa Park and Wood Dale.
"The voters haven't gotten cheated," Gonzalez said.
Overall, board members' reasons for missing meetings ran the gamut — from travel to medical issues and even a sick cat. McMahon said shoulder surgery and personal issues — not indifference — were among the reasons his attendance rate plummeted since announcing in December that he wasn't seeking re-election.
O'Shea, a Republican from Lombard who is running for DuPage Circuit Court judge, said he missed so many meetings because he was handling other county business. "I did work that most people don't see," he said.
"I would schedule all kinds of different meetings with people on ETSB (Emergency Telephone System Board)," added O'Shea, who until August was chairman of the panel. O'Shea said the past year was especially busy because of the rollout of DuPage's new radio system.
Regardless, county board Chairman Dan Cronin, who missed one board meeting in the past year, says the "public deserves better."
"Showing up is an important part of their responsibility," he says. "These people will and should be held accountable by the voters and taxpayers in their district."
This story was written and reported by Andrew Schroedter of the Better Government Association and Robert Sanchez of the Daily Herald. To reach them, call (312) 821-9035 or email email@example.com.