Report: Lake Forest officials squandered $200K on lobbying costs without city approval

Report: Lake Forest officials squandered $200K on lobbying costs without city approval

An independent investigation found nearly $200,000 went toward lobbying the state and federal government for an Amtrak train stop - funds that were spent behind the back of city lawmakers and taxpayers.

An effort by Lake Forest city officials to deliver an Amtrak railway stop to the city of Lake Forest should have taxpayers steaming.

A recent report presented to the Lake Forest City Council on Feb. 20 suggests current and former Lake Forest officials spent nearly $200,000 on lobbying costs since 2016 without the approval of City Council members. The size of the cost, combined with a lack of transparency, could suggest a potentially unlawful transfer, according to the Lake Forester.

Attorney Leigh Jeter, appointed by City Council to investigate the matter last month, produced an 11-page report confirming that a number of high-ranking city officials sidestepped City Council in their efforts to petition the state and federal government for capital funding for an Amtrak train stop and accompanying pedestrian underpass in Lake Forest.

Jeter’s report says City Manager Bob Kiely presented a proposed contract with Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell to the City Council in January 2016, according to the Lake Forester. While Kiely notified city lawmakers about the contract, he omitted its financial terms. In addition, payments to the lobbying firm were routed through City Attorney Victor Filippini’s law firm, further obscuring the appropriations.

According to the Lake Forester, Kiely is entitled to spend a total of $20,000 monthly without needing council approval. But having paid monthly installments of roughly $9,500 “plus expenses” to the firm, Lake Forest expenses surpassed this threshold. However, the city manager failed to notify lawmakers once outlays had exceeded the $20,000 cap. This put the city manager in violation of three city codes, according to Jeter.

But city aldermen weren’t the only ones left in the dark about what such lobbying efforts cost – so were taxpayers themselves.

“It is unclear what – if any – disciplinary steps were taken” as a result of the Feb. 20 meeting, according to the Lake Forester. But Jeter has recommended the City Council take “appropriate action” against a group of local leaders including Kiely, Filippini, and Finance Director Elizabeth Holleb, according to the Lake Forester.

Negotiations involving the undisclosed costs pre-date current Mayor Robert Lansing’s term, the report shows. His predecessor, Donald Schoenheider, “either knew or should have known about” the unapproved appropriations, Jeter claimed, according to the Lake Forester. The report demonstrates that the former mayor was involved in multiple email interactions concerning the contract’s financial terms. Schoenheider denies any knowledge of the transactions.

Rather than heedlessly putting taxpayer dollars toward ambitions that lack the clear support of taxpayers, local lawmakers should explore means through which to ease the tax load on Lake Forest residents. Homeowners in Lake County, where Lake Forest is located, shoulder among the highest property tax burdens in the nation. Perhaps not surprisingly, the county lost more than 5,100 residents on net to outmigration between 2015 and 2016.

Failure to disclose appropriations such as those that went to Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell doesn’t merely defy city code – it defies taxpayers’ trust as well.

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