Money for lobbyists creates political, financial war in Kane County
By James Fuller
Kane County’s budget process began last week and already two wars, one financial and one political, are shaping up over how much taxpayer money is spent on lobbyists with connections to County Board Chairman Karen McConnaughay.
In some respects, McConnaughay saw the political war coming even before the county first hired Chicago’s Raucci & Sullivan Strategies in 2006 to lobby on behalf of the health department. McConnaughay penned a letter that recognized her political history with the firm’s partner, Andrew Raucci.
“In 1990, he represented the collar counties in the successful effort to block Forest Preserve legislation proposed by S.T.O.P., the citizens group I had worked with,” McConnaughay wrote. “In 2003, my campaign committee hired Raucci for his extensive knowledge of election law to ensure proper preparation of my election petitions. As a matter of full disclosure, in 2004, he made a $250 contribution to my campaign (as reported to the State Board of Elections).”
Raucci, according to a 2008 obituary of his mother, has also been engaged to Christine Dudley. Dudley has been active in McConnaughay’s previous and current political campaigns, including at McConnaughay’s recent announcement that she’ll run for the new District 33 state senate seat.
When Raucci & Sullivan was hired in 2006, none of the political relationships bothered the county board. But some board members have changed their tune on lobbyist costs as the county has tightened its budgetary belt the past couple years.
County board member Jim Mitchell has had several public and political spats with McConnaughay the past couple years. Last week he took a new, more volatile, stance against the county paying lobbyists to do work he believes board members and McConnaughay, as elected officials, should do.
Mitchell spent his last re-election campaign touting his vanquishing of lobbyists from the county payroll only to find out what he was telling voters wasn’t true. The county had never erased Raucci & Sullivan from the payroll.
Last year, the firm received more than $64,000 for lobbying and consultant work with the county’s liquor commission, division of transportation and health department. Each department had its own contract with the firm.
The firm is on track to top that total this year. In addition to its $28,000 contract with the division of transportation, through June it has been paid $12,600 by the liquor commission and has done $7,600 worth of work for the supervisor of assessments office.
In attempting to question division of transportation staff about money for lobbyists in the 2012 budget, Mitchell last week said he believes the county has violated its own rules in letting the agency hire Raucci & Sullivan.
“The county board didn’t know about it,” Mitchell said. “There was no (request of qualifications) in hiring them. And that’s against board policy.”
Transportation Committee Chairman Cathy Hurlbut put the brakes on Mitchell’s line of questioning and directed staff members to not answer his questions.
“This is totally out of order,” Hurlbut said. “The question is accusing us of committing some sort of a fraud.”
“So there is nothing in this budget for lobbyists?” Mitchell responded.
“If you want to ask me the question, yes, we do have money in the budget for lobbyists,” Hurlbut said. She added that she didn’t know exactly how much money would go to lobbyists, but she’d find out for a future meeting.
That meeting will be a daylong session during which all the county’s departments are set to present budget wish lists to the county board. Mitchell will not attend that meeting in protest over part of the budget process being moved away from the finance committee he leads. But the lobbyist issue still troubles him both politically and financially.
“Back when we first hired them that one was one thing,” Mitchell said. “Now with what we’re paying them we could hire another employee, more than one employee.”
McConnaughay agreed that getting rid of the county’s lobbyists would lead to the hiring of more employees. The employees, however, would either need to spend all their time in Springfield watching out for the county’s interests or take over some of the chairman’s administrative functions so the chairman could spend more time in Springfield.
“With the state budgetary crisis there’s been a tendency toward revenue grabs at the local level,” McConnaughay said. “Just this last session we had to be actively engaged in Springfield to protect the sales and income tax dollars that residents pay to provide local, direct services.
“You needed to be there every day to deal with that issue because it had the ability to make or break our own county budget,” she added. “You’ve got to have someone who can walk into a committee hearing in Springfield on any given day and provide testimony on your behalf. Cook County has full-time paid staff that that’s all they do. I assure you that’s a more expensive approach than what we do.”