La Salle County Board members will consider Thursday asking a referendum question to abolish the county auditor office.
County Board Chairman Jim Olson, D-Seneca, said a petition signed by 23 of the 29 board members was presented to him to put the question on Thursday's County Board meeting agenda. Olson said it was not his decision to put the item on the agenda, but he is following County Board procedures by doing so.
Since La Salle County has more than 75,000 people, the elected auditor post is created by state statute, but the position is not constitutionally required. If the County Board elects to put the question on the November 2020 ballot, a majority of the county's voters will be required to remove the position.
Jody Wilkinson holds the post. She and two of her deputy auditors were charged last year in an overtime payroll case, but she was found not guilty in a bench trial. One deputy auditor was found not guilty by a jury and charges were dropped for the other.
Wilkinson and her deputies were barred last year from their office. A judge ruled the County Board overstepped its bounds in barring Wilkinson, but her deputies were later fired — a decision they are contesting with the state's labor board.
The county auditor maintains a record of all contracts and agreements, identifies spending and control practices, performs independent internal audits, accounts for assets and reports on the county's finances, among other duties.
Wilkinson said eliminating the elected auditor's position is a horrible idea.
"If the County Board has a personal issue with me, that’s their opinion," said Wilkinson, a Democrat. "Due process has been served. Eliminating that elected position is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The elected nature of the position gives an auditor independence that an appointed auditor not would have.”
Wilkinson further stated her opposition has nothing to do with her political future, as she is not seeking re-election and has said so since her last election in 2016.
“The office itself has value, and I won’t be in it for another term," she said. "The only other county with an appointed auditor is Cook County. Do they really want to be like Cook County?”
Seventeen Illinois counties have elected auditors.
None of La Salle County's neighbors have an elected auditor, but only two of those counties have a population more than 75,000. When Kendall County's population surpassed 75,000, its voters elected not to add an elected auditor position.
DuPage County Auditor Bob Grogan, who serves as president of the Illinois Association of County Auditors, said referendum questions to remove the auditor position have failed in Peoria, Tazewell and Champaign counties recently.
'All for the people voting on it'
County Board member Randy Freeman, R-Lostant, said he was one of the 23 members who signed the petition to put the question on Thursday's agenda.
Calling himself a moderate on the issue, he said he will be voting in favor of the referendum.
"I'm all for the people voting on it," Freeman said of whether to have an elected auditor. "Let's put it to them. The voters are wise when it comes to the issues. ... I think it's something we have to let people decide. I think my colleagues who signed the petition want to see what people think."
Freeman said he has mixed feelings, because he is in favor of citizens voting for county officials, but he said in the auditor's situation, he believes it can be "a popularity contest."
"It's not necessarily the most qualified person is elected," Freeman said. "The County Board would be able to make a decision to hire a qualified individual to do a good job for the people. That's why I'll be in favor of putting it on the ballot."
There are no requirements to run for auditor; however, the elected individual must attend training provided by the state.
In August, the County Board hired a finance director starting at $70,000 for new grant reporting standards and to help prepare budgets. The post is a possible alternative to the auditor's position. Some counties without an elected auditor operate with a finance director, including Grundy County.
Give voters the choice
County Board Member Mike Kasap, D-La Salle, said he will vote no to put the question on the ballot.
In a relatively balanced county of Democrats and Republicans, Kasap said he believes in giving the county the responsibility to vote for individual auditors.
"I'd rather let voters make that decision than make it for them," Kasap said.
He said one argument for removing the elected auditor post is removing politics, but he said politics still will play a role, depending on who holds the majority of county board seats.
Grogan, president of the Illinois Association of County Auditors, said auditors play an important role in larger county governments.
For example, he said auditors are responsible for reviewing every county contract or agreement and making sure the county made correct payments, or was paid the correct amounts.
While he said he once saved his county $300,000 in revenue through an internal review, he said most of the savings auditors identify are small amounts over the course of time, setting it apart from external audits.
"An external auditor might look for the big errors, and consider anything lower than $1 million a rounding error," Grogan said. "They aren't necessarily looking for the $10 errors found in an internal audit."
He said hiring a contractor to duplicate the work of an elected auditor's office may cost more than $100,000, saying no accounting firm would work for less than $100 per hour. Wilkinson's base salary in 2019 was $66,990. Her deputies' base salary in 2019 was set at $50,918 and $49,376, respectively.
"I don't think any county has successfully outsourced that sort of thing," Grogan said.
Grogan also said he believes having an elected auditor removes politics, because auditors answer to voters. Their job is to segregate financial duties and bring an independent financial review to county departments. He referred to the elected position as similar to an umpire.
"If you are an elected auditor, you are the peer of other elected officials and it gives a certain gravitas when addressing issues," Grogan said. "That's different than being a staffer who has to answer to the County Board, and could be fired."
He said smaller counties may not need an auditor, but an entity "worth its salt" with hundreds of employees would not operate without financial review.
"I think in Illinois we should want more independent auditors watching our tax dollars," Grogan said. "Voters want a watchdog. We don't want the foxes guarding the chicken coop. This referendum has been tried other places, and it failed, showing there's a track record of people wanting an auditor in county government."
Want to go?
The La Salle County Board is scheduled to meet for its regular monthly meeting at 1 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, in Room 250 of the La Salle County Governmental Complex, 707 E. Etna Road.
— Shaw Media reporter Tom Collins contributed to this report.