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Carol Stream

DuPage County Board passes ethics revision allowing larger campaign donations

In an attempt to align itself with state campaign finance law, the DuPage County Board voted 16-1 in favor of raising the county donation limit from $1,000 to Illinois' state standard of $5,300 at a meeting Aug. 27.

The DuPage County Ethics Ordinance originally forbade donations from an entity or corporate representatives that "obtained or [are] seeking contracts or change orders" with the government. However, the 2010 legislation may have been superceded by the state reform law passed in 2011.

Assistant DuPage County State's Attorney Nancy Wolfe said that this case was different. For example, the county can mandate limits on what gifts elected officials may receive, because a higher state bill expressly gave counties the power to expand on its parameters.

However, because DuPage is not a "home rule" entity, such as neighboring Cook County, it cannot implement laws that go beyond state law unless specifically given permission to do so.

"No authority has been given to us by the state legislature or the Illinois constitution or the common law," Wolfe said. "But the state legislature has set its own limits, and that's what we are to abide by."

Not all members of the board were convinced. Motions failed in both the finance subcommittee and at the board meeting to table the vote until the state's attorney's office offered a written analysis of the situation opened the door for the landslide.

Only board member Elizabeth Chaplin voted against the ordinance. Board member Peter DiCianni did not vote.

Chaplin said that she voted for against it on principle.

"When I feel something isn't right, I'm going to go with my gut," she said. "There are a lot of reputable organizations telling us to slow down, take a step back, and really look at the law."

Vice Chairman John Curran said that, in light of suggestions made by board members Tony Michelassi and Laurie Nowak, the legislative committee would look into approaching officials in Springfield to allow a DuPage-specific exception to the law.

Board member Jim Zay said that higher campaign contribution limits ultimately won't affect the DuPage County Board because "we have good people" and that campaign finance was an topic of contention because of "corruption in other governments."

"This is brought about, campaign finance, because of corruption in the state of Illinois and the county of Cook," he said.

Despite investigations into board campaign ethics over the years, no wrongdoing has ever been brought to light because there was no correlation between large donations and corruption, he said.

"Not saying it can't happen here, but it hasn't happened here," he said. "Don't think that just because we're doing this, corruption is just going to come rolling in. It's not."

Chaplin said that many candidates on the DuPage County Board were receiving donations from vendors or those doing or seeking county business. She believed, for some, it was about "evening up the playing field for next year's election."

"Some are worried that the people they're running against can take $5,300 donations and they can only take $1,000," she said.

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