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Bipartisan bill would allow local boards to put elected officials on paid leave

By SCOT BERTRAM, The Center Square contributor

More options soon could come for local governments in Illinois dealing with elected officials who have been charged with crimes.

A new proposal in the Illinois General Assembly comes in the wake of theft and misconduct charges filed against Winnebago County Coroner Bill Hintz. He pleaded not guilty to counts of theft and official misconduct after he was accused of stealing cash and property from the dead and misusing more than $15,000 in taxpayer funds.

State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Cherry Valley, said the county chairman tried to remove Hintz from his position, but options were limited.

“The county chairman went to remove him and found out that there was no law on the books that gave the county any ability to remove a person that’s been elected from office, even though they’re charged with crimes that directly impact that office,” Syverson said.

Hintz, who eventually agreed to be placed on administrative leave last September, is facing a total of 49 charges.

Syverson’s measure, Senate Bill 3460, would apply to elected county and township officials who award contracts and have access to taxpayer funds. Syverson said the bill would provide a path to place an official on paid leave.

“I’ve tried to balance it between duly-elected persons, so it doesn’t become political, and then following the law,” Syverson said. “In this case, the county board has to vote with a three-fifths majority to remove. The state’s attorney has to make an opinion and then a judge makes the final decision, not politicians.”

He said the power provided in the bill is a necessary tool, even before a trial or a plea bargain is reached.

“If it was a county clerk that was accused of rigging elections, he could stay in that office and keep rigging elections until the trial,” Syverson said. “Or a township highway supervisor that’s accused of bid-rigging could continue to give contracts out to his friend until [the trial] was done.”

There should be a way to protect taxpayers from such risks, Syverson said.

“People in government should be held to a higher standard,” Syverson said. “We should be above approach. If you’ve been charged with something, it puts people at risk. You should not have the ability to stay in that position and continue to put people at risk.”

State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, is a chief co-sponsor of the bill and Syverson believes bipartisan support should be easy to find in the House.

“It should be no problem. This is common sense,” Syverson said. “When elected officials are abusing taxpayers, they should be held accountable quickly and swiftly so the public has assurance that their government is secure and safe and that their tax dollars are safe.”

The measure says the official would receive all compensation and benefits during an administrative leave and the county board could appoint a temporary replacement during the duration of the leave.

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