Controversial hiring in McHenry County townships boost calls for consolidation

Controversial hiring in McHenry County townships boost calls for consolidation

The appearance of patronage hires in some McHenry County townships highlights consolidation efforts at the state and local level.

Illinois’ nearly 7,000 units of government include more than 1,400 townships – a layer of government long criticized as outdated and inefficient.

Beyond those concerns, Illinois’ many layers of local government are prone to a lack of oversight, with the sheer number of taxing bodies obscuring the view of watchdogs. That dynamic is playing out in McHenry County, where taxpayers in a number of townships are on the hook for what appears to be patronage hiring.

McHenry County’s Bob Miller is a prime example. Despite being linked to a grand jury investigation following his ouster as Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner, Miller is still collecting checks from taxpayers across multiple townships, one of which is also under investigation itself.

After losing reelection as Algonquin Township Road Commissioner in 2017 amid allegations of misuse of taxpayer money and criticism over patronage hires, Miller landed a $40-per-hour consultant job in Nunda Township, which is under investigation for misuse of taxpayer funds. Additionally, Miller received $480 in consulting fees from McHenry Township, charging the township on two separate occasions at the same $40-per-hour rate.

Miller had been in charge of the Algonquin Township Highway Department for 24 years, hiring members of his family to high-priced positions in the department along the way. Miller’s two sons-in-law, who were fired from Algonquin Township jobs upon Miller’s reelection loss, also landed jobs at Nunda Township after losing their positions in Algonquin Township.

From August 2016 to August 2017, Nunda Township paid Derek Lee and Andrew Rosencrans – Bob Miller’s two sons in law – $9,187.51 and $5,125, respectively. Rosencrans is now listed as an employee for the Wauconda Township Road District. In that same timeframe, Nunda Township paid Miller nearly $2,000.

In the case of Miller’s work with McHenry Township, invoices were paid to AMM Enterprises, Inc., a “local government consulting” business owned by Miller. The first invoice was for seven hours of work in October 2017, while the second was for five additional hours of work in November 2017.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, Nunda Township officials said they’ve made no payments to AMM Enterprises, Inc. However, payroll documents show Miller has been listed directly on the township payroll.

Given the allegations against him, a career township politician earning checks from other townships’ taxpayers is eye-catching. Calls for township consolidation have been a welcome sign for taxpayers due to the potential for greater efficiency and cost savings, but questionable hires within township government only add more weight to the consolidation argument.

Unfortunately for McHenry County taxpayers, those types of hires appear to extend beyond just Miller and his family.

“Do you have a problem with that?”

Bob Anderson is a McHenry Township trustee, consolidation advocate and Wonder Lake barber. He recently noticed his township road district had hired an employee, Benton Lesperance, sharing the same last name as Nunda Township Highway Commissioner Mike Lesperance. Anderson asked his township’s road commissioner if the two were related at an April 12 board meeting.

“[Benton] is [Mike’s] son,” said Jim Condon, McHenry Township road commissioner. “Do you have a problem with that?”

When pressed, Condon admitted the township never advertised for the position for which the younger Lesperance was hired.

During the same meeting, township trustee Bill Cunningham asked Condon why the township did not inform trustees of the decision to hire Bob Miller.

“When did you ask?” Condon quipped back.

Condon’s defensive nature might be intensified because taxpayers in his township could be soon moving to eliminate his road district. McHenry Township voters will see a binding referendum on November ballots asking if they’d like to see their township road district consolidated into the township. One of Anderson’s main arguments for consolidation has been the lack of effective oversight within the road district.

Anderson tried twice in the 1990s to advance referendums to eliminate townships – first all townships in McHenry County, and on the second attempt, just McHenry Township. Both failed. But in 2017, Anderson ran for the McHenry Township board himself, on a consolidation platform, and won.

In 2018, Anderson was finally successful in passing a motion to add a road district consolidation referendum to the November ballot. But it was not without pushback. Anderson has found nails scattered both in the parking lot of his barbershop and his driveway at home.

Before ultimately succeeding in getting the referendum question on the November ballot, other township road commissioners and politicians appeared at January and February township board meetings to slam the idea and denounce Anderson’s efforts. Among those in attendance were Nunda Township Highway Commissioner Mike Lesperance and Wauconda Township Highway Commissioner Scott Weisbruch, according to Anderson’s account of the meetings.

Also among them was state Rep. Steve Reick, R-Crystal Lake, who vehemently opposed moving ahead with the consolidation question.

“I’ve spent many hours in Bob Anderson’s barber shop, arguing with him about consolidation,” Reick said at a January meeting, pointing at Anderson, while the township employees who flooded the room cheered him on.

“We need to be sure before we put this on a ballot that there will be a cost saving to consolidating this road district into McHenry Township. I’m not convinced.”

Despite the criticism from those entrenched in township government, the McHenry Township board voted 3-2 to put the question on the ballot asking voters if they want consolidation. If voters so choose, they could set an example for the rest of McHenry County – and the state as a whole – to follow.

Ways forward for taxpayers

With more than 1,400 townships in Illinois, opportunities for waste and patronage are aplenty. But as things stand, the deck is stacked against taxpayers when it comes to consolidation.

To put a binding referendum question on a ballot to eliminate township governments, voters must get a petition signed by 10 percent of the registered voters in every township in the entire county. State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, has proposed legislation to ease that threshold for McHenry County in particular, with a bill that would change the petition signature requirement to just 5 percent of voters who voted in the last comparable election – only in the specific township seeking to consolidate. McSweeney’s bill passed the House April 17 by an 80-22-1 margin.

Among the 22 votes against McSweeney’s legislation was Reick; Al Riley, D-Olympia Fields, who also serves as Rich Township Supervisor; and Norrine Hammond, R-Macomb, who is a former township supervisor and trustee. Among those not voting – and effectively not supporting the legislation – was Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, who formerly served as executive director of the McHenry County Council of Governments.

Another piece of legislation, filed in February by state Rep. Sam Yingling, D-Grayslake, would likewise help taxpayers attempt to ease their tax burdens through government consolidation. Yingling’s bill, House Bill 3133, would allow all Illinois counties to pursue township dissolution by voter referendum, brought either by citizen petition or county ordinance.

But township employees, along with Reick’s help, are trying to stop this taxpayer-friendly legislation. Reick filed a bill in response to Yingling’s that would require a cost study before consolidation can take place – a move that could prove costly and burdensome enough to dissuade consolidation efforts. Additionally, more than 100 officials representing township governments filed their opposition to HB 3133, according to witness slips displayed on the General Assembly’s website.

The pushback against simply asking taxpayers if they want reform is indicative of many townships’ priorities.

For the likes of Algonquin, Nunda and McHenry townships – and townships throughout the state – consolidation could mean the loss of well-paying jobs on taxpayers’ dime, needed or not. For the Bob Millers of the world, that would be the loss of a fruitful source of income for decades. But for taxpayers, it could mean putting a dent in one of the heaviest property tax burdens in the country.

Lawmakers should consider siding with taxpayers.

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