Alleging inappropriate voting, oversight committee calls on New Trier Township board to develop conflict of interest policy
The New Trier Township Board of Trustees is in the early stages of adopting a conflict of interest policy after an oversight committee “voiced concern and disapproval” with a trustee’s actions and the board’s lack thereof.
In a memo to the board, the Agency Oversight Committee expressed its objections to Trustee John Thomas’ connection to a Township-funded agency, the Winnetka Youth Organization, and the lack of disclosure of the conflict before the board’s February meeting.
At the Feb. 23 meeting, Thomas and the board approved a round of grant funding for local service organizations, which include the Winnetka Y.O. Thomas serves as treasurer on the WYO’s board of directors.
Thomas told The Record he laments voting for the past three years on the grants, which are presented as a committee recommendation and routinely given a “rubber stamp,” he said.
“I am pink-faced — I’m not quite red-faced — about not having thought about it the last few years when I rubber-stamp voted on the committee’s recommendation,” said Thomas, who added that he supports a conflict of interest policy.
Thomas is a 20-plus year member of the WYO board. He said he disclosed that information in a Township committee meeting shortly after being elected in 2017 and recused himself from committee discussion about WYO funding.
When the funding recommendation, which included the WYO, came before the board, however, Thomas voted to approve it.
“I never gave it a thought, having recused myself in the first place at the committee level, that I was anything other than part of the rubber stamp,” he said. “And I did that for four years running.”
According to the memo featuring the Agency Oversight Committee’s objections, prior to the February meeting, a committee member informed Township Trustees Elliott Robbins and Gail Eisenberg — now the supervisor elect — that the committee was concerned that Thomas had been voting on items related to the Winnetka Youth Organization.
Eisenberg told The Record via email that she heard the concerns by phone and “reviewed the relevant statutes and Township Handbook.”
According to Eisenberg, New Trier Township does not have an independent conflict of interest policy. Instead, it follows the guidelines of the Township Officials of Illinois.
“I did not believe there was a conflict of interest under any current law or policy,” she wrote. “I intended to address similar potential perceived conflicts as a part of this summer’s review of the committee process rather than piecemeal.”
The Agency Oversight Committee is requesting that the board adopts a comprehensive policy that eliminates “any potential conflicts of interest or appearances of impropriety going forward,” according to committee notes provided to The Record by the Township.
The board’s liaison to the committee is Trustee Stefan Mozer; however, Robbins filled in for Mozer at a recent committee meeting and brought forth the committee’s concerns on April 20.
“They make it a point to say that they are not allowed to serve on any type of agency in a board or officer capacity,” he said, “and they can’t understand how we are operating, letting trustees serve as board members or officers of agencies when in fact there is at least the appearance of — if not an actual — conflict of interest.
“The way they framed it is a bunch of agencies are competing for a common pot, and it doesn’t sit well with them.”
New Trier Township, which in 2019 received $2.6 million in property-tax revenue, is a limited-government agency that provides financial resources and programming that benefit residents in need.
Each year it allocates more than $1 million in funding to between 35 and 40 local service organizations. In fiscal year 2019, $1.53 million was given to 50 programs across 39 agencies.
The Township rarely turns down agencies seeking funding, and did not deny any in fiscal year 2019, according to Brian Leverenz, the Township’s community services administrator who oversees funding. But not all funding-request totals are fulfilled, he said.
“It’s a competitive process in that there’s more money requested than there are funds available,” he said.
The Winnetka Youth Organization is one of a quarter — 10 of 39 — of agencies in 2019 that received more than $50,000.
Organized in 1969, the Winnetka Youth Organization has received Township funding for decades, along with similar youth-based agencies in Glencoe (Glencoe Youth Services) and Wilmette (Warming House Youth Center).
Annual reports from the Township show that since 2014 it has granted at least $48,000 annually to the WYO. From 2014-’19, a span of six years, Township funding of WYO has grown by a nearly identical rate as that of the Township’s overall agency funding.
From the Township, WYO has received 14.6 percent more funding ($48,000 to $55,000) since 2014, while during the same time the Township has allocated 14.9 percent more total funding ($1.34 million to $1.54 million) to agencies. Also in that span, the number of agencies funded has moved from 35 to 39, an 11 percent increase.
In its notes, the Agency Oversight Committee wrote that “at a minimum” the the Winnetka Youth Organization funding should have been a separate vote, for which Thomas recused himself, but urged trustees to consider restricting trustees from serving as board members or officers for Township-funded agencies.
At the April 20 meeting, Robbins relayed the message, but said he thought the committee’s idea was “a little broad and sweeping” and suggested the board get the advice of counsel.
Thomas garnered the support of Supervisor Alan Goldberg, who began the April 20 meeting by addressing the oversight committee’s concerns.
Goldberg said he spoke with Thomas and they agreed that Thomas would recuse himself from future discussions and action, including bulk action, that involve the Winnetka Youth Organization.
“As far as I am concerned, as supervisor, it is over and done with,” Goldberg said at the meeting.
Eisenberg said she does not believe conflicts of interest, real or perceived, have influenced board decisions on WYO, but agreed with the Agency Oversight Committee that even the appearance of such conflicts are problematic.
“I am confident there has been no statutory violation,” she said. “That doesn’t mean just the minimum is good enough for New Trier (Township). We can also avoid any appearance of impropriety, even if actions are above board on the letter of the law. It’s really about best practices.”
The board agreed in April to Robbins’ request to keep the issue as “Continuing Business” on meeting agendas until it is resolved.
Eisenberg said that the Township was planning to review the agency-funding process this summer and consideration of a conflict-of-interest policy will now be included in those discussions.
Robbins, Mozer and Thomas were all reelected in April, along with newcomer Danielle Zinn Ruben. The quartet will be sworn in during the Township’s May board meeting and will have a say in the potential new policy.
The next round of Township funding will be decided in the fall, and Eisenberg said she hopes any policy changes are adopted by then.
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Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319