The Will County clerk on Friday swore in a University Park trustee who said she refused to consent to a criminal-background check requested by the village clerk.
Lauren Staley-Ferry administered the oath of office in Joliet to Jewell Thompson, one of three new members that voters elected to the University Park Village Board on April 4.
There is no basis in Illinois law for elected municipal officials to undergo criminal background checks before taking office. Yet, the practice of conducting background checks for newly elected University Park Village Board members appears to be a local tradition in the village of 7,000 people.
“About two weeks ago I got an email from Dee Jones, the village clerk, and she said before you’re sworn in, it’s required by state statute that you have a background check,” Thompson said.
Jones is mistaken. She did not immediately respond Friday to requests for comment.
Thompson thinks the background check request is about political power and intimidation. She rejects any claim that a background check was needed to ensure the integrity of people holding public office.
“I’m a registered nurse,” Thompson said. “You can’t be a registered nurse and have a felony.”
University Park Trustee Theo Brooks said he grudgingly consented to requests by Jones to undergo background checks after he won elections in 2017 and 2021. Brooks is a retired police officer who has undergone multiple criminal background checks to carry weapons and to coach high school and youth football.
“In 2017 I went ahead and did it. I knew it wasn’t a problem,” Brooks told me. “I thought maybe we would deal with it another time. In the long run we never addressed it. So when I won in 2021 we had that same doggone conversation.”
Brooks said he told Jones there was no such statute that required criminal background checks for elected municipal officials.
I said, ‘Madame Clerk if someone is a convicted felon there is a process where they can be challenged not to take that seat,’” Brooks said.
Brooks is correct. The process for challenging the eligibility of an elected official holding public officer involves petitioning the county state’s attorney, who can then seek an order from a judge to remove that person from office.
That’s exactly how the process played out recently in Will County, no less. Karl Ferrell was elected trustee of Joliet Township in 2021. But Ferrell is a felon, which rendered him ineligible to hold municipal office. Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow is pursuing a court order to remove Ferrell from office.
Sometimes political opponents will challenge eligibility of municipal candidates during elections. A local electoral board can deem someone ineligible because of a felony, or if a person owes money to a municipality.
If you want to get really deep in the weeds, courts have found you can run for municipal office even if you haven’t paid your property taxes, which are owed to the county treasurer and not the municipality.
Brooks said before he took office he checked with the village collector to make sure his water bill payments were up to date and he hadn’t overlooked any possible debts to the village.
“She laughed and said, ‘Theo, you know you’re the last Boy Scout in University Park,’” Brooks said.
One could speculate about why Jones would ask elected village officials to consent to background checks. One possible explanation could be that it drums up business for the company conducting the background checks.
In addition to seeking comment from Jones, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request Friday with Jones in an effort to determine what company conducts the background checks, how much they cost and whether reports are available.
It is unclear whether the background check requirement applies to the mayor and village clerk as well as trustees. Mayor Joseph Roudez III did not immediately respond Friday to requests for comment.
Former Mayor Vivian Covington accompanied Thompson to the Will County clerk’s office Friday when Thompson took her oath. Covington was mayor in 2017 when Brooks first consented to a background check, and I asked her about the practice.
“They made it up,” Covington said.
I asked her who was “they.”
“Dee,” she replied. “For the record, I never saw anybody’s background.”
It seems shady that a municipal clerk could ask elected officials to consent to a criminal-background check when no such law requires the practice or gives a clerk authority to request one.
It was not immediately clear whether the mayor and clerk were also asked to consent to background checks, in addition to newly elected trustees.
“The mayor, who gets to review his background? Who gets to review the background of clerk Jones?” Brooks wondered. “That’s the hypocrisy of this background check thing.”
Voters elected Jones to another term as clerk April 4. Roudez won his second term as mayor by a 10-point margin over Brooks.
Brooks has requested a recount, which the Will County clerk’s office is set to conduct Wednesday, May 10, he said.
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It was not immediately clear whether fellow newly elected University Park trustees Gina Williams and Donna Dilworth also were asked to consent to background checks. Efforts to reach them by phone Friday were unsuccessful.
Thompson said she intends to attend a swearing-in ceremony scheduled for 7 p.m. May 17 at the University Park Golf Club. A flyer for the event posted on the village’s website indicated Illinois Appellate Court Justice Nathaniel Howse would administer oaths of office.
Thompson said she was not expecting any trouble or confrontation about refusing to consent to a criminal-background check. For good measure, she has an oath of office certificate signed by the Will County clerk.
That should entitle her to take her seat when the Village Board meets next, should anyone attempt to refuse to swear her in for refusing to consent to a bogus background check.
“I can’t be unelected,” Thompson said.
Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.
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May 5, 2023 at 04:26PM