Should a suburban mayor be allowed to have a second job as a county board member?
That’s a question at the center of a political debate in DuPage County where Elmhurst Mayor Pete DiCianni and Burr Ridge Mayor Gary Grasso say they plan to continue running their respective communities if elected to the DuPage County Board in November’s general election.
And it’s a question now being raised in Cook County, because Peter Silvestri and Jeffrey Tobolski are county commissioners who also serve as elected leaders in their municipalities.
Silvestri has served as Elmwood Park’s village president and a Cook County commissioner for nearly two decades. During that span, he says no one has challenged the legality of his holding dual offices.
But observers say if DiCianni and Grasso win in November and are pressured to step down as mayors – a possibility ever since DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin crafted a legal opinion that found such dual roles are “incompatible” – it could make it easier for someone to come after Silvestri or Tobolski, the mayor of McCook since 2007 and a Cook County commissioner since 2010.
“I think [they] would have reason to be nervous,” says Jack Siegel, a veteran municipal attorney who was interviewed by the BGA but is not involved in this matter.
Silvestri says he’s not concerned but acknowledges he heard about the debate in DuPage and brought it up to state Sen. Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park.
That led Harmon to introduce a bill on Feb. 7 that would make it legal across the state to serve as a mayor and county commissioner, even if the agencies have basic contractual agreements such as those involving 911 dispatching or sewer services. Under the state’s Public Officer Prohibited Activities Act, a county commissioner isn’t supposed to serve on a community’s governing board if the county government and the community have a contractual relationship.
Cook County has had no contractual relationship with Elmwood Park or McCook over the past five years, a county spokeswoman says. In recent years, DuPage County has had at least seven legal agreements with Elmhurst and Burr Ridge, including intergovernmental agreements that address road and storm water management projects, records show.
Silvestri says he asked Harmon, whose district includes Elmwood Park, to introduce the legislation to “clarify the law.”
Harmon’s bill has been making its way through the Senate, but Harmon now says he’s backing off because he doesn’t want to affect a political race.
“Anything I do with the legislation will impact the outcome of the elections,” Harmon says. “So we may just let it play out.”
DiCianni and Grasso won Republican nominations for separate county board seats in March’s primary election. If victorious in November, they say they plan to continue as mayors, putting them at odds with DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin.
Cronin says he thinks it’s a conflict of interest for DiCianni and Grasso to hold both seats. “It’s hard for me to understand how or why these gentlemen can serve both roles,” Cronin says.
Cronin asked Berlin for guidance earlier this year after another local official expressed interest in a vacant county board seat. The state’s attorney then issued a non-binding legal opinion on Jan. 20 that says the offices of mayor and county board member are incompatible under the Public Officer Prohibited Activities Act. The opinion wasn’t written with DiCianni and Grasso in mind but Berlin’s conclusion could apply to their situations.
Berlin writes: In DuPage it’s “unlikely that a municipality . . . would not now or at sometime in the near future . . . engage in a contractual relationship with the county.”
He concludes that someone who is a mayor and a county board member cannot “faithfully perform all of the duties of each office.”
In other words, you really can’t serve two masters.
DiCianni and Grasso say they disagree with Berlin – and Cronin, for that matter.
“I don’t think a first-term county chairman should tell anyone they shouldn’t do something,” DiCianni says. “I think it’s an asset to have a mayor at the table that understands what the county does.”
While Berlin’s opinion can’t force dual office-holders to divest of one of their positions, it could be used as a launching pad for future court action, officials say.
While Harmon isn’t pushing his bill forward right now, he says he may resurrect it at a later date.
This story was written and reported by BGA investigator Andrew Schroedter. He can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 821-9035.