Kadner: Second mayor seeks inspector general
By Phil Kadner email@example.com June 12, 2013 11:08PM
Hazel Crest village manager James Whigham Sr.
Updated: July 15, 2013 3:19PM
The mayor of Hazel Crest has asked the Cook County sheriff to appoint an inspector general to examine the financial records of the village.
Hazel Crest joins Dolton as the second south suburb to ask Sheriff Tom Dart for such assistance.
Dolton, facing bankruptcy, passed an ordinance this month creating the office of inspector general, a post that will be filled by a member of Dart’s staff.
Hazel Crest Mayor Vernard Alsberry Jr., elected in April, said he discovered upon taking office that several village employees had received large pay raises earlier this year.
“The village manager received an 11 percent raise, and two other employees, the chief financial officer and public relations person, received 20 percent raises,” Alsberry said. “Under village ordinance, our employees are supposed to be limited to 7 percent raises.”
He said the raises were apparently included in the village budget, but village trustees were unaware of the pay increases when they approved the budget.
“When I asked the village manager if he had pointed out his pay increase to the village board, he said it’s not his job to tell the board what’s in the budget, it is their job to ask,” Alsberry said.
Village manager James Whigham Sr., in his second year in that office, told me his salary was increased from $108,000 a year to $121,000.
The chief financial officer’s salary was increased by $14,000 to $92,000 a year, and the director of communications received a pay hike of $8,000 to $47,000 a year.
“The salaries were included in the budget for everyone to see,” Whigham said. “No one was trying to hide anything.”
Alsberry said he asked the trustees what the village manager’s salary was prior to the raise, and “they didn’t know.”
But the mayor also seemed to be unclear on what the chief financial officer and communications director were earning, quoting figures to me that were about half of their actual salaries.
“That information is wrong,” Whigham said when I quoted him the mayor’s numbers. “He’s got it wrong every time.”
When I asked Whigham how he could justify such large pay hikes in difficult economic times, he said all of the village officials were underpaid.
“I took the job at about $15,000 less than my predecessor,” he said. “The previous mayor promised me a pay increase if I stayed on the job. I’m still earning less than my predecessor even with the pay raise.”
Whigham said Hazel Crest previously paid a consultant $144,000 a year for financial services before hiring an employee to do the job.
“Even with the pay increase and benefits, our chief financial officer costs less than the firm we hired,” he said. “They were here only four hours for maybe two days a week. Now we have someone on staff full time, and we’re saving money.”
The communications director, in addition to performing a public relations function, does “community outreach,” Whigham said, acting as a “point person” when new businesses come into Hazel Crest.
“He helps them fill out any of the permits that are necessary, keeps track of (special taxing districts) and performs a lot of other duties that help bring business into the village,” Whigham stressed.
Alsberry said he reached out to Dolton Mayor Riley Rogers after he read about that suburb’s financial problems.
“My idea is to bring in the inspector general, create the office, to find out if there’s anything financially we don’t know abut,” Alsberry said. “I want to catch it early before there’s a problem.
“There are a lot of questions that I can’t even get answers about, such as who is a department head and who is not. Some people are getting extra hours for being a department head, and I’m not sure it is always justified. I just want to make sure we have good government in Hazel Crest.”
However, Alsberry said he is feeling some resistance from the village board.
“I do not have a majority of the board (supporting me),” he said. “So I don’t know if they will approve the ordinance creating the office of inspector general.”
He said he hoped to put the ordinance before the board for a vote this month.
Alsberry said he would also like the village to pay for a forensic audit of its books.
Whigham said he would “welcome” an inspector general.
“If you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t mind someone looking over your shoulder,” he said.
“We have nothing to hide. We haven’t done anything improper. My only thought is that the sheriff probably has better things to do.”
Whigham said the Government Finance Officers Association just lauded Hazel Crest for its excellence in financial reporting.
Most suburban officials are not professional politicians. They often have little experience in municipal finance. Alsberry, for example, is a physical therapist.
Yet once in office, they must deal with multimillion-dollar budgets, relying heavily on paid professionals who are often holdovers from a previous administration.
Inexperience, sometimes combined with incompetence or corruption, has caused major financial problems for several Southland towns.
Dart’s offer of assistance to low-income suburbs is a welcome signal that there’s at least one high-ranking official in the state willing to provide some oversight.
I hope more suburban mayors will take advantage of that resource to make sure that taxpayer money is spent lawfully and wisely.