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CHICAGO (STMW) – Cook County commissioners won’t be able to charge their bar tab to taxpayers as of June 1, under a local law approved Tuesday.
For the last three years, commissioners were only told it was a bad idea under a series of ethics guidelines meant to help them navigate the use of their expense accounts.
Beyond their $85,000-a-year salary, commissioners also have access to expense money — known by some critics as a slush fund — to pay for everything from work-related meals to parking to car leasing fees.
But in recent years, the funds have come under scrutiny after it was revealed that some pocketed the money as income — which was legal at one point but is now banned — or spent it on advanced degrees, a practice that will now be more closely scrutinized under the amended ordinance passed Tuesday by county commissioners.
Currently, commissioners who opted to use expense funds — there are a handful of the 17 commissioners who don’t — get a check at the start of each month to use for expenses. The expenses are only vetted after the money is spent, when commissioners submit quarterly reports detailing how they gobbled up the money.
Under the approved ordinance, they’ll fork over their own money for an expense, submit a report for review and then get a reimbursement check.
“This just adds some clarification and some transparency” to the existing ordinance, said Commissioner Edwin Reyes, a Northwest Side Democrat and co-sponsor of the measure.
But Commissioner Deborah Sims said this was a knee-jerk reaction to headlines over the expense accounts. Most recently Cook County Commissioner William Beavers was indicted for allegedly failing to pay taxes on expense money he pocketed, but officials say the change in the ordinance wouldn’t prevent something like that from happening.
“If we know we’re not doing anything wrong, we shouldn’t have to make adjustments because they [the media] feel like it’s something wrong,” said Sims — who nevertheless cast a vote in favor of the measure. “We already have the rules and regulations we need to abide by.”
Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, a lead sponsor of the measure, has said County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office was a key player in putting together the legislation. But some commissioners have raised concerns that this is a power-grab on her part since the ethics board — an office under her authority — will have tighter control.
Preckwinkle denied that’s the case, saying: “There’s nothing in there that says they have to consult with me before they make their decisions. I presume they’ll exercise their usual good judgement,”
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