DuPage County Board ponders legal action after clerk’s refusal to answer questions over no-bid contracts

On April 17, 10 DuPage County Board Commissioners signed a letter directed to board chairwoman Deborah Conroy, requesting a discussion over two no-bid contracts awarded by the DuPage County Clerk’s Office.

The letter, drafted by District 6 Commissioner James Zay, requested attendance from the staff of the Clerk, States Attorneys, and Auditor’s offices during Tuesday’s County Board meeting.

“We are concerned that the Clerk’s office is not following Illinois State law and continues to not listen to or take the legal advice of our States Attorney Office,” Zay said in the letter. “This issue of the Clerk not working with the County has come to a tipping point and now we are talking about hundreds of thousands of “taxpayers money” that have no oversight or transparency.”

The contracts, totaling more than $265,000, covered material and services pertaining to the March 19, Illinois primary election. The two invoices, issued in January, have not been paid yet, County Auditor Bill White said.

In response, DuPage County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek said she would not attend Tuesday’s county board, in a letter sent to Conroy on Monday.

“The County Clerk is not an employee of the County Board,” Kaczmarek said in the letter. “The County Clerk is an independent elected official, empowered by the voters with the authority to make the expenditures required to administer fair and open elections.”

Kaczmarek, justifying her decision to deny the board’s request, cited a 1996 opinion by Illinois Attorney General James E. Ryan, concluding that as an elected official, purchasing power necessary to the duties of office is not subject to restrictions by the county board.

“Consequently, a county board does not possess the authority to implement a purchasing procedure which would require the State’s Attorney or a county officer to submit, for county board approval, purchase requests or payment requests for equipment or materials which the particular officer has determined are necessary for carrying out his or her duties and for which funds have been appropriated,” Ryan said in the opinion.

Kaczmarek said in her letter that the call for a discussion was an attempt by board member Zay to accuse her office of not following Illinois law.

“For the second time in less than a year, vendors whose work is essential to DuPage County elections have been forced to wait months for payments I had already personally approved for services that had already been rendered,” Kaczmarek said. “Member Zay’s attempt to cast doubt on whether DuPage County elections are fair and unbiased is nothing new.”

Zay’s request for a discussion was signed by all seven Republican board members and 3 Democratic board members.

“Today’s conversation is not about elections, it’s about procurement and operating a transparent, open and equitable procurement process that provides opportunity for vendors to participate and offer the lowest prices and best value to our taxpayers,” Conroy said Tuesday.

As Tuesday’s meeting went on nearly all of the county board members voiced concern with the clerk’s actions, but were divided on their level of severity and how far to go in response.

The decision was made to wait till the board meets again in two weeks before taking action, as members called to let the issue slide, censure the clerk, involve Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, and even take Kaczmarek to civil court.

Kaczmarek herself threatened to elevate the matter from an internal government discussion to a legal one, “I believe a courtroom, rather than the County Board room, remains the proper venue for such matters to be adjudicated,” she said in her letter to Conroy.

Taking meaningful legal action, if warranted, would require a significant amount of time and money, requiring separate legal counsel for the county clerk and potentially the county board, State’s Attorney Robert Berlin said during the meeting.

“Let the chips fall where they may, and if it costs us money it costs us money,” Commissioner Sam Tornatore said Tuesday. “This is important and needs to be addressed.”