(Illinois News Network
) — A review of tax dollars that officials from local governments around Springfield used to attend the annual Illinois Municipal League conference in Chicago showed the smallest community spent the most, and some officials took their spouse.
The private Illinois Municipal League lobbies state government on behalf of municipal governments. Not only do taxpayers pay their village’s or city’s membership to the IML, many of them across the state also foot the bill for local officials to attend the IML’s annual conference in Chicago.
The late September conference included a captive audience of village and city officials ranging from trustees, alderman, village presidents, city attorneys, police and fire chiefs and other municipal officials.
IML Executive Director Brad Cole said the conference includes training sessions.
“Much of which is mandated by the state and their positions require the latest training just like any other position,” Cole said.
There were also vendors on hand showing off their wears to local government decision makers.
Public records reviewed by Illinois News Network showed Springfield, with a population of 116,000, sent an alderman costing $1,130. That covered travel, lodging and hotel. Much smaller Jacksonville, a population of around 18,000, sent its mayor, costing $1,537. Even-smaller Chatham, population 12,600, sent one trustee for a cost of $630. Similarly sized Taylorville sent two officials for a cost of $1,650.
Sherman, north of Springfield with a population of 4,700, spent $6,500, or five times the amount the Capital City spent even though it is significantly smaller. Those costs included officials’ spouses attending.
Cole defended spouses going along to the conference in Illinois’ largest city.
“Sometimes the spouse gets just as much information as the elected official at home when they’re hearing from their friends and neighbors and the people that are being represented,” Cole said.
Conference registration for local officials cost $310. For the spouse to get into the exhibit expo, the cost was $25. But there was also the Saturday luncheon that cost $55 and the banquet that cost $125, for a total cost of $205.
Sherman’s costs included registration, hotel, travel via train or car, a room upgrade, valet parking and cab fare. Three city officials also booked tickets for their spouses. That was Trustee Pam Gray and husband John, Trustee Kim Rockford and spouse Danny, and Village Administrator Michael Stratton and wife Michelle.
Despite a receipt showing Sherman Mayor Trevor Clatfelter being registered for the conference at a price of $310, he says he did not attend. There are no records that he had a hotel registration as other attendants from Sherman had. Clatfelter said he’ll have to find out if the village was reimbursed for the registration.
Asked about taking spouses, Stratton said in an email “I have no response to you other than Village IML Conference attendance and reimbursement guidelines provide for spouse attendance.”
Those guidelines say “Spouses are permitted to attend conference with authorized employee, trustee or other with the Village at no additional cost to the spouse. The Village will pay the cost of Spouse to attend the exhibit Expo, Banquet and Saturday Luncheon.”
Messages left for Pam Gray and Kim Rockford were not returned.
“I don’t begrudge local officials for wanting to go to conferences to try and do a better job for the constitution that they serve, I think that’s a good thing to do, and I’ve participated in some conferences from a state level,” said state Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield). “I don’t pay for those with taxpayer dollars, but I have participated and I know that they can be very useful in doing your job and building relationships to try to do good things for your community.”
But Butler said local taxpayers footing the bills may have to have some controls.
“I think that having some controls on possibly how many people can participate or maybe making sure that you are trying to hold the costs down as much as possible is really important,” he said. “And a lot of our communities are having big budget holes that they have to fill, so if I’m a locally elected official, I’d really want to watch to hold the line on that as well.”
As to taking a spouse to the conference on the taxpayer’s dime?
“There’s nothing wrong with taking your spouse to an event,” Butler said. “I don’t have a problem with that. My wife joins me at things, but we make sure that is not paid for with government funds and I think that’s probably the No. 1 thing.”
Reporting by Greg Bishop
The Center Square -- formerly known as Watchdog.org and the Illinois News Network -- and their reporters represent 18 states across the United States as the taxpayers' watchdog, exposing the way government really works.