Suggestion of racism brings retort
KANKAKEE — A Kankakee County Board member suggested Tuesday that an effort to limit the county auditor’s powers could be perceived as racism.
Despite the charge, an overwhelming majority of the board approved a resolution to encourage the state legislature to remove accounting from the mandated duties of elected auditors in smaller counties statewide.
Board member Robert Ellington-Snipes, D-Kankakee, criticized board Chairman Andy Wheeler’s efforts to reduce County Auditor Jake Lee’s powers. Ellington-Snipes took exception to Wheeler’s quotes in a recent Daily Journal story.
In that story, Wheeler, R-Kankakee, noted the LaSalle County auditor and two of her employees were recently indicted for theft. At the same time, he said Lee would never be involved in corruption.
Still, Wheeler said it was important to keep accounting in the finance department. Otherwise, he said, federal grants would be jeopardized.
Ellington-Snipes said he took offense that Wheeler mentioned LaSalle County’s situation, making it seem as if Lee is similar to the state’s only indicted county auditor.
“It appears that Jake Lee follows the law,” Ellington-Snipes said. “The auditor is the watchdog of this community. The auditor is a check and balance.”
The comparison with LaSalle County, he said, calls for an apology from Wheeler. He suggested the chairman resign.
Raising his voice, Ellington-Snipes said, “If it’s not racism at best, at the very least it’s blatantly prejudice sprinkled with discrimination and topped with ethnic degradation.”
Lee and Ellington-Snipes are African American. Wheeler is white, as is the board majority.
“I’m getting calls all over about this,” Ellington-Snipes said. “We need financial oversight.”
His voice shaking a bit, Wheeler said he took offense at the charge of racism. He asked whether any county board members thought the proposal was the result of prejudice. No one spoke up.
“I will not resign any day soon,” Wheeler said. “This has never been about personal issues.”
He said he simply wanted to protect the county’s federal grants, contending that accounting and auditing should never be in the same office.
Referring to LaSalle County, “I said in the newspaper that Mr. Lee would never do something like that.”
Member Tinker Parker, R-St. Anne, said she was “saddened” by the suggestion of racism.
“I thought it was unnecessary,” she said.
For the last two years, Lee, a Republican, has pointed to a state law that says his office must handle accounting. Fifteen years ago, though, the county formed a finance department, which answers to the board, to take care of the accounting function.
The legislation in question would make it optional for counties to assign accounting duties to elected auditors.
When the board voted on the measure, only Ellington-Snipes was against. Two other members, Patricia Polk, D-Kankakee, and Samuel Payton, D-Hopkins Park, both African Americans, abstained.
One-fourth of the board was absent. Gone were Michael LaGesse, Bill Olthoff, Chris Tholen, Janis Peters, Elisabeth Dunbar, Shane Ritter and Aaron Dunnill.
The legislation in question only has one sponsor so far, Rep. Tom Bennett, R-Gibson City, who the county asked to introduce the bill. It has not been scheduled for a vote.
At the end of Tuesday’s board meeting, Ellington-Snipes spoke again about the issue. He advised Wheeler and others to be careful with their words and not offend parts of the community.
“Keep it professional,” he said.
Ellington-Snipes referred to an allegation that Wheeler leveled against Lee in a 2017 closed session that was held to discuss the auditor.
In that meeting, Wheeler said Lee had stolen a book from the chairman’s office and that he may take the matter to the county ethics commission.
When Lee heard about the accusation later, he denied it. He said Wheeler had given him access to his reference materials and that he pulled a book from the collection, which Lee said was in plain sight in his office.
Last year, Wheeler said in an interview that he accepted Lee’s version of events and that he may have forgotten that he offered Lee the use of his reference materials.
In an interview after Tuesday’s meeting, Lee said he would not go so far as to say discrimination was the reason for Wheeler’s dealings with the auditor’s office.
“I think the issue is a misunderstanding about what the actual (auditing) standards are,” Lee said. “I don’t agree with not following the law and then changing the law to legitimize your errant practices. Whether that stems from some personal issue, God is the judge of that.”