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Daily Journal
     March 4, 2020      #16-64 KDJ

County auditor debate covers the burning

By Chris Breach

KANKAKEE — The debate for the Kankakee County auditor race between Republican incumbent Jake Lee and challenger Brandon Meredith had all the makings to be a volatile affair as shots had already been fired by both sides on social media.

While the back and forth was contentious at times and on point, both Lee and Meredith were cordial and, for the most part, professional. The candidates forum hosted by the Kankakee County Branch of the NAACP on Tuesday at the Kankakee Public Library was in advance of the March 17 primary election.

The panel was comprised of Ayana Smith, of Kankakee; Mike Ruble, of WVLI radio; and Ann Delabra, of the League of Women Voters. Approximately 75 people were in attendance in the fourth-floor auditorium, and Theodis Pace, president of the Kankakee Branch of the NAACP, was the moderator.

There were several questions asked and issues covered by the panel. Here is a sampling of the questions and answers by the respective candidates.

Please outline why you think the auditor’s office is or isn’t in accordance with state law.

Lee: “The office of auditor, for historical context, was created in 1964. ... The office remained relatively untouched until 2003 when the then-auditor, Mr. McCarty, who is now the finance director, went to the county board for the office to be separated.

“I believe that the county board, because the law states, the county board cannot alter the duties, powers or functions of an elected office. I believe that the board altered the duties of the functions of that office. They continue to do so and have further impeded the office through the budget by not funding the office appropriately.”

Meredith: “The thing about the law is it needs to be adjudicated in a court of law. That’s why we have attorneys. Mr. Lee continues to say it’s operating outside the law. ... I’m not an attorney, but the law is ambiguous, and it needs to be decided in a court of law. The attorney general hasn’t weighed in on this because there’s a case in Tazewell County. They refuse to make any kind of determination on that until that case is settled.

“To say we’re operating outside the law, that’s just an opinion. It’s not a statement of fact.”

Is there discord in the auditor’s office?

Meredith: “What’s going on now is absolutely ridiculous. If you can’t communicate with board members, especially your own party, where’s that heading? This dysfunction I’ve seen so far and the reason I got into this race is because it doesn’t seem to be fixable. The county board has reached out to Mr. Lee, and he hasn’t been accommodating to them.

“I don’t think you should just go along, but you have to keep an open line of communication and remain professional when you’re communicating with people.”

Lee: “I would certainly disagree that I’ve caused dysfunction. What my opponent calls dysfunction, I call accountability. Sometimes people don’t like what you have to say, and that’s alright. The idea that I don’t engage or not willing is, quite frankly, made up. The fact is that I have communicated very much with the county board, and I continue to do so.

“I substantiate all of my positions in email form, that they are free to read anything that I have that I’ve submitted to them. There’s an open line of communication and always has been. Any board member is welcome to my office. As far as the party goes, I am a Republican and I hold the most conservative financial values up here.”

Is the auditor’s office accountable to the taxpayer?

Meredith: “How you go about that is the difference between me and Jake. I would go in and discuss everything with all the department heads and see what’s going on first. And then I can drive solutions from there. You can’t be accountable if you don’t go out and see the different departments, know what they’re doing before you start making decisions.”

Lee: “Accountability to the people is the ultimate standard of an elected official, specifically the auditor as it relates to engaging other departments. I have done that. I have visited just about every department in our county. Some we haven’t been able to for various reasons, mainly scheduling on the part of that department. We make our decisions based on policies that do exist already.”

Is it realistic that bills will not be paid?

Meredith: “Sure, it’s realistic that they won’t get paid. The process is that the county board has to approve the bills. If no one is entering the bills, then how do they get paid? Are we supposed to magically cut checks? That’s not how it works, and bills do run the risk of not getting paid if they’re not approved by the county board.”

Lee: “The county board is responsible for paying the bills, so the bills will always get paid. Right now, they have assumed the duty of entering the bills into the accounting software as part of the accounting functions. The bills have never been in jeopardy of not being paid. The imaginative description that we’re going to lose a bond rating and all of that is just a fear tactic. That is not going to happen, and it has not happened.”

How can one begin collaborating with the board and gain the trust of the taxpayer?

Meredith: “Communication is the key. Communicating to people is not talking down to them, it’s not attacking them. ... It’s created dysfunction. Again, I don’t think this can be remedied without change. It either has to come from the elected official, or someone like me needs to step in and make that change.”

Lee: “One thing I can say about communication and so called dysfunction and attacks, I will remind my opponent that there was an illegal meeting in July 2017. That meeting violated the open meetings act, thus illegal. There you had your county board chairman, attacking me, attacking my character in that meeting. They were forced to publish the minutes, which are available on the county’s website.

“... So try to point the finger at the auditor’s office as if we have caused the so-called dysfunction is disingenuous. Our office is willing to communicate, and is willing to come to the table even after an illegal meeting. ... It is the other party that has backed away from any type of negotiations.”

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