Chester J. Strzelczyk loan agreement form / Photo credit: LinkedIn
Chester “Chet” Strzelczyk abruptly resigned this past month as village administrator in Summit amid revelations that he gave himself a taxpayer-backed loan – a no-interest $2,800 pay “advance” – apparently without approval of the village board.
Now, village officials are hiring an auditor to dig through the books to see how this all went down, and whether other financial irregularities exist.
Village of Summit Mayor Joseph W. Strzelczyk / www.thevillageofsummit.com
While that’s played out, we decided to look at something else: Why Strzelczyk was hired in the first place. He’s the nephew of Mayor Joe Strzelczyk, so was this an instance of straight-up nepotism?
The mayor indicated no, and his nephew didn’t return calls.
But based on interviews and documents obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, we found:
- Chet Strzelczyk was hired in 2011 into the job, which paid him more than $80,000 a year, despite having no known municipal management experience or college degree, though he had previously served on the village board as a trustee and had been in the business world for many years. According to his resume obtained from the village under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, his last job was as a “Store manager” for a business affiliated with Sears.
- Nobody else was apparently interviewed for the village administrator position before Chet Strzelczyk was hired, and the village could produce no reference letters submitted by him or on his behalf.
- The mayor was the person to select Chet Strzelczyk – who was described by one village official as “like a son” to the mayor and who once helped oversee his campaign fund – and the village board unanimously confirmed the hiring.
In an interview with us, the mayor described his nephew as a hard worker with good business and financial sense. He made the appointment “with the consent of the board,” he said.
The mayor said his nephew is several credit hours short of earning a college degree, and there’s no mention of college on Chet Strzelczyk’s resume on file with the village.
Summit Village Attorney Michael Cainkar said, “I think they [village officials] felt Chet was qualified based on his job history, his tenure as a trustee” – including time on the Finance Committee – and “the mayor’s and the board’s familiarity as a trustee…and the level of trust.”
Were other candidates considered for the job?
There’s no evidence of that.
The village has no policy preventing nepotism, but the Better Government Association’s policy unit recently urged Summit officials to adopt one to prevent conflicts of interest and other troubles associated with familial hiring.
Chet Strzelczyk resigned in mid-August as the BGA and FOX 32 found he had taken a “payroll advance” of $2,800 from the village coffers – apparently without knowledge or approval of village trustees as the law requires. The money was eventually paid back, without interest, officials said.
A recent editorial in a southwest suburban community newspaper stated: “Mayor Strzelczyk moved quickly when he was made aware of what had happened.”
However, the mayor has refused to tell us whether he knew beforehand about the loan involving his nephew.
Similar payouts were made to two village trustees – one official was advanced $6,000 from his salary over two years, another official was allowed to stay on the village’s health plan for several years without paying more than $17,000 in premiums, records show.
David Limardi, Midwest regional director of the International City/County Management Association, a professional association for municipal administrators, said he was unfamiliar with the Summit situation.
But speaking to us in generalities, Limardi said, “Obviously one of the basic tenets of professional local government management is professionalism – which means you’re trained to do that work. It’d be no different than if you hired a CEO in an industry – you’re not going to hire someone with no experience in that industry.”
Limardi, who was the city manager for nearly two decades in Highland Park, said each town crafts a job description based on its needs, and specific requirements can vary.
However, “it has become an expected requirement for many managers when recruitments are done for them to have a master’s degree in public administration,” he said.
Referring to the differences between municipal administrators and elected officials, he added, “There is a difference between the policy side and the execution and management side of the business of local government . . . i.e. public safety, public works, finance, community development.”
Limardi said municipalities are “not legally mandated to hire the best person for the job.” But, he added, “one of the tenets of the profession is we don’t hire someone based on who they know or where they come from, we hire people based on who is the most qualified person for a position.”
Marvel Parker is a Summit trustee but was not on the village board when Chet Strzelczyk was hired. She has worked with him since and told us, “I would never say he wasn’t qualified to hold the position and do the work. I’m sorry he didn’t realize the limited power he had and made the mistake of writing himself a check and not getting board approval.”
This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times’ political portal Early & Often – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth, who can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 821-9030.