Adams County Board showed lack of trust in voters, political process when going behind closed doors

County Board

From left, Adams County Board members Matt Obert, Raquel Sparrow, Ryan Hinkamper and Bret Austin

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: The Adams County Board’s Finance Committee went into closed session May 9 to discuss giving themselves raises and lay out a political strategy to deal with potential fallout from voters who might not approve of the action. 

These actions are not permitted under the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

“The appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, performance, or dismissal of specific employees, specific individuals who serve as independent contractors in a park, recreational, or educational setting, or specific volunteers of the public body or legal counsel for the public body, including hearing testimony on a complaint lodged against an employee, a specific individual who serves as an independent contractor in a park, recreational, or educational setting, or a volunteer of the public body or against legal counsel for the public body to determine its validity. However, a meeting to consider an increase in compensation to a specific employee that is subject to the Local Government Wage Increase Transparency Act may not be closed and must be open to the public. 5 ILCS 120/2(c)(1).“

The full Adams County Board took the same action during its regular monthly meeting on May 10.

This story is an analysis of the closed session of the Adams County Board meeting on May 10. The recordings of both meetings are linked below. 

J. Robert Gough

Bret Austin, vice chairman of the Adams County Board and Finance Committee chairman, opened the closed session of the Adams County Board meeting on May 10 explaining what was about to happen.

“It’s like, choose your own salary adventure while you’re running close to a primary and then the general election coming out after that,” he said. “So, we’re in executive session. Feel free to speak frankly. It is recorded, obviously. But what happens here we can keep confidential until we release whatever we approve.

“First, let’s start off with — we have to do this. This is not an option. This isn’t a political thing. We have to set this. We don’t have to increase it; we can set it the same if we want. But if you reviewed what I sent out to everyone, Kent and I had worked on this for a while, and then the finance committee, we reviewed it yesterday. There is no debating the fact that we are woefully underpaid. As County Board members, we’re also woefully underpaid …”

At no time during the closed session on May 10 did any of the 17 Adams County Board members mention that local school board members, John Wood Community College board members, Quincy Park District board members or members of multiple other governing boards throughout Illinois receive no compensation. 

They only mentioned that members of the Quincy City Council are paid more, failing to mention Quincy aldermen meet weekly as opposed to the Adams County Board meeting monthly. 

Spreadsheet with salaries sent just hours before County Board met

The spreadsheet (linked below) was sent to the full County Board at 3:49 p.m. — a little more than three hours before the meeting. It was not included in the packet they receive before every meeting. The specific dollar amounts involved were not mentioned to the members until they received the e-mail late on the afternoon of May 10. 

“The (salaries) that are up this year are the county clerk and the treasurer, but we’ll get to the circuit clerk soon, and we’ll get to the coroner again soon in another two years,” Austin said. “So, we did kind of a comprehensive review all the way through. So, you’ll see the list there. Started with the state’s attorney, so the first three — state’s attorney, public defender and, starting in July for this next year, the sheriff — are all what we would call formulary salaries. They’re set by state statute. The state’s attorney is set in each county; it’s a kind of a population dependent thing. 

“Interesting trivia bit for you. Adams County is the 24th largest county in Illinois, so 24 out of 102 (counties) puts us at the 76th percentile. Just keep that in mind when we’re talking about proportionality and salary. Most salaries for elected officials in Illinois are set by a proportionality of a population.”

Austin never mentioned during this discussion the stipends that countywide elected officeholders receive on top of the salaries. 

50 ILCS 145/2)
    Sec. 2. Time and manner of fixing compensation.
    (a) Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, the compensation of elected officers of school districts and units of local government, including home rule units, which compensation is to be fixed by that school district or unit of local government, shall be fixed at least 180 days before the beginning of the terms of the officers whose compensation is to be fixed.
    (b) In addition to the requirements of subsection (a), the compensation of county elected officers shall be fixed by ordinance or resolution of the county board or the board of county commissioners. In the ordinance or resolution fixing the compensation of county elected officers under subsection (a), the county board shall separately list each stipend an elected officer is expected to receive in addition to the compensation to be paid by the county. The stipends listed shall include, but are not limited to, stipends expected to be received under:
        Section 3-40 of the Property Tax Code.
        Section 4-20 of the Property Tax Code.
        Section 3-10007 of the Counties Code.
        Section 4-2001 of the Counties Code.
        Section 4-6001 of the Counties Code.
        Section 4-6002 of the Counties Code.
        Section 4-6003 of the Counties Code.
        Section 4-8002 of the Counties Code.
        Section 27.3 of the Clerks of Courts Act.

As an example, the Pike County (Ill.) County Board took the proper action at its May meeting.

‘It was in an email I sent to you today’

As reported by Muddy River News following the May meeting, the salaries of sheriff, state’s attorney and chief public defender are set by statute. That was discussed during the closed session. Members asked where the information could be found.

Steve DeMoss (D-District 1): “This all this information you read off in our packet?”

Austin: “It was.”

DeMoss: “I didn’t get nothing.”

Austin: “It was in an email I sent to you today.”

DeMoss: “I didn’t get anything. Did you guys get emails?”

Austin: “Sorry. You’re on the … you’re on the list. I know you are. But we’ve got some printed out copies here.”

After the Illinois Attorney General’s office inquired about the closed meeting contents, Austin replied in a July 6 e-mail that he had sent all of the salary board information to his fellow board members the week before. He also said, “We can certainly discuss this in open session (during the July board meeting).” 

However, multiple County Board members said the information wasn’t sent the week before in the County Board packet, nor was the matter discussed at either the July County Board meeting or the July Finance Committee meeting. Information was given to members of the local media after the vote was taken. 

County Board under deadline to approve salary increases

During the May 10 closed session, Austin justified the increase to fellow board members by saying Adams County ranks in the 76th percentile in population — which, according to his calculations, would mean a $15,000 salary for the Adams County Board chairman and $10,750 for Adams County Board members. 

“I don’t suspect that anyone sitting here would get re-elected if we said we were going to want to make $10,750, and nor do I think any of you would vote for that,” he said. “So that isn’t what we tried to do.”

Ryan Hinkamper (R-District 2), the lone no vote on the salary increase, then had the following exchange with Austin.

Hinkamper: Does this all have to be approved by the same vote? 

Austin: Yeah. 

Hinkamper: So we can’t … can’t break it apart and approve?

Austin: We could. We could. 

The discussion then turned to the deadline the County Board was under to take action or leave the salaries as they were. 

“So, we have to take action on that (County Board, sheriff, state’s attorney, chief public defender, county clerk and recorder, county treasurer),” Austin said. “And we don’t have to approve the circuit clerk and the coroner now, because that’ll come up in two years. County Board chairman, committee chairs and county board members, we do have to set salary now. If we don’t do it at this meeting, we’re not going to be on time.”

‘I worked out my hourly rate at the county, and it’s pretty abysmal’

Austin said Adams County would save money from its general fund because of a new formula being used to pay sheriffs, state’s attorneys and public defenders.

A new state law says the salary for the sheriff of a non-home rule county shall not be less than 80 percent of the salary set for the state’s attorney. In doing so, the state will furnish about 66 percent of the total salary to be paid a sheriff. So while the salary of the next sheriff will increase from $81,693 to $146,747, Adams County will actually pay fewer dollars — $48,426 — toward the salary.

He brought it up in context with the County Board raises he was asking for.

“So that’s a net savings of about $31,000,” Austin said regarding what would be paid to the state’s attorney, sheriff and chief public defender in the next fiscal year. “… I use the term loosely savings. Ryan (Hinkamper), I know you don’t like that with taxpayer money … 

“… Assuming that we would give ourselves some raises … the county board chairman at $7,500, which would be an increase of $1,650; the chair people as being about a $2,000 increase (county committee chairs previously unpaid) and the county board members about a $400 increase (to $4,200), so that’s 10 percent for that.

“I know the percentage looks really high on the county … on the committee chairman … and no, I’m not doing that because I’m a committee chairman. I worked out my hourly rate at the county, and it’s pretty abysmal.”

Again, referring to his calculations, Austin said he took 42 of Illinois’ counties most similar in population (eliminating anything with more than a 5 percent difference) and county board size (eliminating any board with less than 10 members) to Adams County. 

Austin also said the last time Adams County Board members received a raise was 2006, conflicting with an earlier statement that raises could only be done every 10 years.

Board wanted to show united front on raises

The discussion turned to the public perception of the raises and the need for the board to show a united front. 

“I mean, what we’re really concerned about here is what we’re doing (with salaries),” Raquel Sparrow (R-District 3) said. “I mean, it’s everybody pretty much on the same page. What are the optics, and what’s the company line?”

Matt Obert (D-District 5), first elected to the County Board in 2006, is not running for re-election this year. He would not benefit from voting for a pay increase, so he said he would make the motion as he had nothing to lose being a “lame duck” member. 

“It does cost. I mean, we do have to show up. We give up time with our families and give up time away from our jobs, so there is cost involved to us. And that’s OK,” Obert said. “You know, each one of us make that decision each time we run whether or not we do that, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with recognizing that your costs have gone up and things like that. 

“I think people understand that, especially during this time. But I’m not running for elections and because the rest of you are … I think it would be nice that we were all united on this and that you know, we do it. We do it together. And we don’t do it separately.”

After Obert suggested a possible separation of the votes and further stressing unanimity, Austin said, “We’re doing this unanimously, or we’re not doing it. There isn’t going to be any politics with this.”

Obert: No one ever asked what salary was for County Board

Sparrow and numerous other members said the $400 annual increase “wouldn’t make or break anyone.” She emphasized the increase would have a negligible impact on the county’s overall budget, but she was willing to support a resolution that separated the board members’ salary vote from the others.

“It’s appropriate for us to make sure that we’re paying people who are really best to work with, but for me personally, I don’t care about salaries,” Sparrow said. “So, I’m perfectly content to vote yes to everything else and no to those (board member salaries).”

Austin continued to push keeping the salary vote lumped in with the others and pushing his narrative that board salaries could only be voted on every 10 years. 

“So, here’s what happens if you don’t do it now,” he said. “In two years … so everyone here is gonna be up for elections, right? Are the terms that you draw on the straw are 4-4-2 (four-year term, four-year term, two-year term), 4-2-4 or 2-4-4. Right? So, seven of us, me included, are going to get a two-year term. And so, in two years, you can have your salary adjusted, but not the other 14. So, this makes it a lot harder. So, 2010, in 2012, they should have done it wherever it was on the board. Right now, it’s 2020, and you do it in 2022. That’s your only window. So, if you don’t do it again, it’s 2030 and 2032.”

In further discussions about the political ramifications and optics regarding the vote, Obert and Peter said they wished they had supported smaller, more incremental salary increases for board members over the years so a proposed raise of 9 percent wouldn’t seem so out of line. Austin, who said this move was about taking politics out of the equation, brought up politics yet again. 

“Let’s be honest. What we’re talking about here, we’re running a little cover game, because the sheriff’s salary is going down $33,000,” Austin said. “That’s why it’s only a net budget change of $3,000.”

Obert said no one has ever asked him what he made in all of his years on the County Board. 

“How many people have asked you when you’ve been knocking on the door how much you make? I mean, I don’t think anyone asked that,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s going to throw a fit over a $400 increase. If you’re talking a $5,000 increase or a $10,000 increase, you’re right. You’re talking $400 across the year, for $25 a month more, for your time. 

“Then on top of this, we have the opportunity here to also take the high road and say there’s been a discussion about this type of work for a long time about the kind of work members continue to pay mileage reimbursement. That has come up time and time again, and this is now time to deal with that. Right now, we don’t really have anybody turning it in, but those (mileage reimbursement) numbers add up. One thing that we can do is say, ‘Give yourself the $400 and take away the mileage reimbursement.'”

County Board hasn’t given itself raises in 20 years

Obert believed there would be little if any fallout from voting for a raise, even though it was going to be orchestrated that two lame-duck members of the board (Obert and Peter) would put forth the resolution for a vote after their private discussion came out from the closed session. 

“We’ve not done this in 20 years, and in 28 years, it’s only happened once,” Sparrow said. “Plus, we have the added bonus of it really not costing us too much to have these increases. So that’s kind of helping us to make us look less …”

“Greedy?” an inaudible speaker said, leading to much laughter in the room.

“Greedy … I guess … or less smart with our money,” Sparrow replied. “Then you have the just the added increase of the fact that we are in the middle of some really terrible inflationary figures. So, it kind of, you know, makes a little bit of sense. So, if you’re going to do it, now is kind of the most opportune time.” 

Hinkamper asked what was in this for the taxpayer, about the overall perception of the issue, about making a motion to discontinue the mileage reimbursement and that a member running for re-election make the motion to do away with the mileage reimbursement as a suitable fig leaf to cover the salary increase. 

Getting the wording right for the news media also was discussed. Obert and Sparrow said it was a one-day news story at best.

Board members also continued to lament what they weren’t getting, such as health insurance and a pension. Austin again mentioned what Quincy City Council members received as compensation.

DeMoss, who works for Knapheide Manufacturing, said he needed to leave to get ready for his shift, which began “in about an hour.” He wanted to vote before he left. He said he would leave without voting if the discussion didn’t wrap soon.

“Quit yakkin’ and let’s get it done then!” DeMoss said.

Hinkamper lone no vote on County Board raises

This was followed by conversation about again splitting the raises of the County Board members and the county-wide elected officials.

Obert then said, “Well, I just want to know: Is everybody going to be in favor? If we’re all 100 percent in, it’s one vote. If some of us can’t support it, then we need to break it out.”

Hinkamper said he couldn’t support the resolution if County Board salary increases were included.

“I don’t want to vote for the County Board raises,” he said. “I’m OK with the chairman, and I’m OK with everyone else (getting raises), I just can’t do it.”

Austin: “When would you ever vote for it then?”

Hinkamper: “Never. I don’t do this for money.”

Austin: “Then give back your $400!”

Sparrow: “There you go!”

Austin then claimed he didn’t take a County Board salary during the COVID-19 pandemic and he and Snider said other board members didn’t take salaries at certain times.

“We didn’t tell you guys. We just did it,” Austin said. “You can do what you want with the money. We’re doing this for the legacy of the next 10 years. It’s not just about you (directed at Hinkamper).”

“It’s just a principle,” Hinkamper said, sticking to his guns.

Other board members seemed to bristle during the debate. Many of the comments were garbled. Snider, who had said little during the exchange, finally spoke up.

“Let’s get it over with,” he said.

“So we’re going to probably have at least one ‘no’ vote?” Austin said. “Anyone else? All right.”

Snider asked to entertain a motion to go back into regular session. Obert made the motion and Austin seconded it. Then Austin still orchestrated how the vote would go down.

“Travis (Cooley, R-District 4) is going to do the mileage one after this one (salary increase vote), and Mark is going to do the motion and Matt’s gonna do the second (for the salary increase vote),” Austin said.

The Adams County Board then allowed the public and media to re-enter the board room before voting 16-1 to pass the salary increase and unanimously to do away with the mileage reimbursement for travel by board members within Adams County.

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