Two independent consultants contracting with the city of Elmhurst will be able to continue their work while city staff investigates whether other positions they hold present a conflict of interest.
What was set to be a routine contract renewal for Charles Van Slyke and Ken Bartels earlier this month was pulled off the City Council's consent agenda Oct. 15 and sent back to the Finance Committee for further review.
As a city consultant, Van Slyke specializes in real estate matters. But he also serves on the DuPage County Board of Review, which handles property tax appeals from businesses and individual homeowners. And, he is listed as an associate with former Elmhurst City Manager Tom Borchert's consulting firm, "a regional practice in the areas of municipal government, municipal finance, land use, TIF districts, labor negotiations, real estate, and business/corporate contracts," according to its website.
Another Elmhurst consultant, Ken Bartels, also works for Borchert's firm. For the city, Bartels is primarily focused on economic development.
The city consulting contracts for Van Slyke and Bartels are up for renewal. In fact, they've both expired. But the city's Finance Committee is not going to put forth a recommendation to renew them just yet.
City Treasurer David Dyer asked the Finance Committee Monday if they felt "comfortable" that the person who works on issues related to tax increment financing is also on the County Board of Review, which can lower the equalized assessed valuation of properties.
"Our TIFs live on EAV. That's what drives a TIF," Dyer said. "If someone comes in and says (my property) is not worth $1 million, it's only worth $800,000, does he have a loyalty to us to work for the million, while at the county he is reviewing the $800,000? He has a responsibility to us when he works for the city to maintain our EAV, and yet he changes his hat. Do we want to put him in that situation?"
Alderman Paula Pezza, who attended Monday's meeting but is not on the Finance Committee, presented a bill from Van Slyke. On it is described a call he got from a real estate broker inquiring about TIF properties.
"He needed to put a call in to the county supervisor of assessments regarding the assessed valuation of the parcel she referenced," Pezza said.
Alderman Scott Levin said he could just have been inquiring as to what the EAV is.
"I feel like we're casting aspersions that make it look like there's something wrong," he said.
Pezza said that the fact that they don't know what Van Slyke's involvement is in instances like these is reason enough not to renew his contract.
"The mere fact we pulled this off the agenda, we're having this discussion tonight and we had to get legal opinion should tell us it doesn't pass the smell test," she said. "He's paid with taxpayer dollars on both ends. Why are we putting ourselves in this position?"
Attorney Don Storino said the term "conflict of interest" is referenced in several areas of state statute, none of which applies in this case. Whether the position is proper would be more of a policy discussion, he said.
"I clearly understand what you're saying," he said. "For me, it doesn't fit within the category the law has given us with the statutes (as being improper). You're talking about something different. What you're talking about is outside the purview of what I looked at. Is this a bias? Could this be a bias? It's not for me to really decide."
Aside from his work with the county, alderman spent some time talking about both consultants' work with former City Manager Borchert.
"We now know that the two consultants who work for the city also work for our prior city manager's consulting firm, which does business with businesses that do business with the city," Pezza said.
Aldermen said they only learned of the connection with Borchert's firm at the last City Council meeting Oct. 15.
Pezza said she was made aware Borchert's firm is representing Superior Ambulance, which is coming to the city regarding land vacation.
"(Van Slyke) is paid by the taxpayers to review those situations and those properties, and he also works with Tom Borchert, who represents Superior Ambulance, which is coming to the city and asking us to look at that land," she said.
Levin asked if Van Slyke is participating in that work.
"I don't know and I don't care," Pezza said. "He works for a company that represents Superior Ambulance. There are 50,000 people in this town, many who could probably be qualified and not have any of these conflicts. Why even go there?"
Storino said the consultants' contracts "put some burdens on the independent contractor to be aware of any relationships that would create a conflict of interest with the city."
"I'd have to look at this and analyze exactly what Charlie does," he said. "The same provision is in (Bartels') contract—and we drafted this contract."
He said there still is no legal violation, but, "I understand what David and Paula are saying," he said. "I didn't know there was any other cross-pollination with (Borchert's) company."
There might be no impropriety at all, Levin said.
"He may have nothing to do with Superior," he said. "You can't just cast the net that anybody who has relationships (is doing something wrong)."
"Are you throwing the baby out with the bathwater?" he said. "There is a lot of information we need to get. We've been enlightened about some things we need to dig into."
Aldermen emphasized throughout their discussion that it has nothing to do with the consultants' character.
"It's not the person, it's the position," Dyer said.
Pezza said it is a business decision.
"Just to be absolutely clear again, this is not personal. This is a business decision based on using tax dollars," she said.
The concerns and questions brought up at the Finance Committee meeting will be reviewed by City Manager James Grobowski, then brought back to the next committee meeting Nov. 12.
Allowing the consultants to continue their work in the meantime is in the best interest of the city, Finance Director Marilyn Gaston said.
"To say that they can't work until we get these questions answered is not in the city's or the public's best interest," she said. "They are doing real, necessary work."