Frustrated County Board Seeks Its Own Counsel

Will County Board Graphic

By Nick Reiher

County Board Chair Judy Ogalla and a handful of board members, have been frustrated for months with opinions for which they asked from the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office.

That came to a head at the March 14 meeting of the County Board’s Executive Committee, where members in a split vote authorized an action item allowing Ogalla to hire its own legal counsel with advice and consent of the board.

Ogalla, R-Monee, said several times during the meeting, echoed by several Republican board members, they have no faith in the representation they have received from the State’s Attorney’s Office due to opinions that later have changed.

The most recent was an opinion by Assistant State’s Attorney Scott Pyles requested by Ogalla after County Executive Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant vetoed a resolution regarding 143rd Street widening after she said she mistakenly signed it.

At the March 14 meeting, Pyles was asked to read into the record that opinion, dated February 26, which outlined under what conditions a resolution it considered legally valid. Ogalla said she was frustrated by the “non-opinion,” especially the last line:

“This office has corresponded with both the County Board chair and the County Executive’s office. Having no first-hand knowledge of the events that have or have not transpired, the State’s Attorney expresses no opinion on the factual circumstances of this resolution. We have provided the legal framework with which to allow the elected officials to perform their duties. It is up to the elected officials to apply the legal principles set forth herein to the factual circumstances, as they know them to be.”

Ogalla said she is not a lawyer, and didn’t know how to respond to the opinion. Pyles said the clarification came as part of a March 1 letter from Ken Grey, Chief Deputy State’s Attorney. It addressed new information from Will County Clerk Lauren Staley Ferry after Pyles sent the February 26 opinion:

“After further examination of the documents in question, discussions with the County Clerk’s office about the actions pertaining to Resolution 24-27 and based on the email sent by the clerk (our review showed no contradictory information), it appears that the signature of the County Executive was not attested to by the Clerk. Therefore, in accordance with our previous opinion, Resolution 24-27 has not been enacted. … We understand that all parties may not agree with our legal analysis, but that does not meet the legal definition of a conflict. See In re Appointment of a Special State ‘s All y on Behalf of Haney, 2020 IL App (2d) 190845. Such an understanding would gut the constitutional and statutory obligations of this office.

“Therefore, we respectfully decline to appoint a special Assistant in this matter.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Mary Tatroe, Chief of the Civil Division, said at the meeting the County Board does not have the authority to hire its own counsel. Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow was elected to represent the people, as well as both the County Executive and County Board.

Should the board still hire a special counsel, Tatroe said she would advise county financial officers not to pay the fees.

She refuted Ogalla’s claim of a conflict and partiality toward the County Executive, saying the board members simply don’t like the opinions issued.

Board Member Steve Balich, R-Homer Township, said the board not having its own attorney and a right to challenge the State’s Attorney’s opinions denied him his right of due process and cheated those residents who elected board members.

Others noted Bertino-Tarrant, as have other County Executive’s in the past, has her own attorney.

But the County Board has had chiefs of staff who have been attorneys, including the current chief, Kim Fladhammer. When hiring her a little over a year ago, Ogalla said she wanted a Chief of Staff who is an attorney.

The issue began when Bertino-Tarrant vetoed a resolution reducing the widening of 143rd Street in Homer Township from five lanes to three with a median and turn lanes. That would be the only portion of the 143rd Street route not to be five lanes, an issue the County Board supported in nine votes over 30 years.

In addition to the action item regarding its own legal counsel, the Executive Committee also voted to direct the Will County State’s Attorney to file litigation to challenge the County Executive’s ability to veto a resolution, and directing the Will County State’s Attorney to file litigation to enforce the original resolution for three lanes with a median and turn lanes.

After the meeting, Bertino-Tarrant issued this statement:

“The State’s Attorney has made it clear that the County Board is acting outside its authority. If County Board members can ‘lawyer shop’ whenever they disagree with the SAO opinion, our county government will grind to a halt as lawsuits are filed whenever an elected official doesn’t get their way.”

Nick Reiher is editor of Farmers Weekly Review.

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