DuPage County clerk says county board has no right to question her no-bid contracts

DuPage County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek refused this week to comply with a request that she attend a DuPage County Board meeting to answer questions about two contracts she approved without seeking bids.

Her appearance was requested by 10 board members in a letter sent to County Board Chair Deborah Conroy. Written by member James Zay, District 6, the letter asked that Conroy arrange for the clerk to be at the Tuesday meeting to explain the $265,000 in contracts she authorized for the purchase of envelopes and mailing materials.

Both bills were received in January and are related to the March 19 primary election. Neither has been paid, county Auditor Bill White said.

“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 state’s attorney office,” the letter said. “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.”

Kaczmarek pushed back Monday, telling Conroy in a written response that she would not be at the meeting.

“The county clerk is not an employee of the county board,” Kaczmarek said in her 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.”

She cited a 1996 opinion from then-Illinois Attorney General James Ryan that said an elected official’s authority to make purchases required by the duties of office is not subject to restrictions by a 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 she believes Zay and the other board members are making the expenditures an issue in an effort to raise unjustified concerns about the integrity of the election system.

“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,” she said. “Member Zay’s attempt to cast doubt on whether DuPage County elections are fair and unbiased is nothing new.”

The letter was signed by all seven Republican board members and three Democrats. Zay is a Republican and Kaczmarek a Democrat.

Kazcmarek has said publicly why bids were not sought for the contracts.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Conroy said the issue has nothing to do with the election.

“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,” she said.

Board members were divided on how to proceed. While most voiced concern about the clerk’s actions, opinions on how to handle the matter ranged from censure to asking the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to get involved to taking Kaczmarket 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 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 … if it costs us money it costs us money,” Dist. 1 board member Sam Tornatore, said Tuesday. “This is important and needs to be addressed.”

George Wiebe is a reporter for the Pioneer Press.