Mercer County & the Role of Transparency in Good Government

Illinois’ Mercer County lies south of the Quad Cities and comprises part of its metro area.

Perhaps you’ve heard that the county’s treasurer, Mike Bertelsen, has been arrested and charged with stealing at least $13,000 from the county’s 911 Fund, the result of investigations that followed a forensic audit in the county office.

The Illinois Policy Institute has pointed out Mercer County transparency failures that IPI counts as red flags:

  • A lack of online transparency
  • A failure to file annual reports on a timely basis
  • Violations of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
  • Violations of the Open Meetings Act (OMA)
  • I’ve suggested before that failures to turn in Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) annual reports to the state might signal trouble, as tardiness correlated with financial corruption cases in Alorton and Dixon.

    The violations of OMA and FOIA are either mostly or wholly related to Mercer County’s hideously dysfunctional and incomplete website. FYI: Dixon’s wasn’t much better at the time Rita Crundwell’s crimes were discovered.

    After the Crundwell corruption case became public the Institute immediately conducted an audit of the city of Dixon’s website in accordance with the Institute’s 10-Point Transparency Checklist. The results of the audit showed that the city of Dixon failed miserably, scoring a 16.7 out of a possible 100 points in online transparency measures, and had posted almost no financial information on its website such as budgets, audits, contracts or expenditures.

    DeKalb’s doing better than the above troubled communities when it comes to opening the books. Does this mean a “Rita Crundwell moment” couldn’t happen here?

    Well, I have to believe that each step toward openness makes it a little bit harder, as do media attention and the willingness of ordinary citizens to file Freedom of Information Act requests and challenge the city on Open Meetings Act practices every once in a while — DeKalb has all of these things.

    However, if you want to explore the possibilities of financial corruption, you need look no farther than the city manager’s spending authority (see Section 54.15).

    The City Manager or his designee shall have the authority to enter into contracts for the purchase of goods and materials, the provision of contractual or professional services, and the construction of public improvements authorized by the approved annual budget in the amounts from $10,001 to $20,000 without the necessity of any additional City Council approval.

    You can see how this played out in the case of the alderman who was secretly contracted to “renew” DeKalb.

    It is not difficult to conclude that care was taken to keep at least one of these projects under the $20,000 threshold by breaking it up into smaller jobs. Repairs needed after the 231 E. Lincoln demolition were divided into three separate projects by using the addresses of the adjacent buildings as well, and thus were listed in the city’s check register as 229, 231 and 235.

    There were zero consequences for this breach of the public trust. Therefore, it makes sense to me that should anyone want to investigate possible financial corruption by City of DeKalb officials, they’ll start by analyzing purchases and contracts made using the generous spending authority with no council oversight.