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Peoria County voters will be asked to decide auditor question again in November

JESSICA THOMAS
Tim Shelley
/
WCBU
Peoria County Auditor Jessica Thomas reads prepared remarks off her phone before the Peoria County Board at its Aug. 11, 2022 meeting, ahead of the board's 15-2 vote to send elimination of her office to a November referendum for the second time in four years.

Peoria County voters will again be asked in November whether the elected office of internal auditor should be eliminated. This comes after voters narrowly rejected a similar proposition in 2018.

The ballot language approved by the county board asks voters if the elected auditor's office should be eliminated on Dec. 1, 2024, because the county already has an external auditor as required by state law. An additional sentence mentioning cost savings that was suggested by the county's executive committee was dropped from the referendum language.

Peoria County Auditor Jessica Thomas accused the board of ignoring the will of the voters.

"The voters spoke. It just wasn't the answer you wanted. So you just keep asking in different ways to get the answer you desire," Thomas, a Democrat, told county board members during the public comment portion of the meeting Thursday evening.

County board members approved adding the referendum to the ballot by a 15 to 2 margin, with Democrats Rob Reneau and Brandy Bryant casting the only "no" votes. Member Junior Watkins was absent.

Many of the functions once part of the internal auditor's office now reside with an external auditor, or the county's finance department that is overseen by the county administrator.

The county board estimates $150,000 in annual savings with the elimination of the auditor's office. Last year, board members moved to reduce Thomas' budget, bringing her office's staffing levels down to a single person— herself.

Brian LeFevre of Sikich LLC gave the county's financial statements a glowing review while presenting the county's external audit for the 2021 fiscal year on Thursday.

"The financial statements are presented fairly in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles free of material misstatement, and this is the highest level of opinion that you can receive on your financial statements," he said.

County board members voting in favor of the referendum pointed to the external audit as proof the county is being transparent with its finances.

"I think a lot of people don't understand, you know, when something is actually paid how that process works, and the internal checks and balances that are already in place," said county board member Rachel Reliford, R-District 12. "I think it was good for us to be able to hear from our external auditor today about the health of our process, the transparency around that."

County board member Kate Pastucha, D-District 9, said her support of the referendum wasn't about Thomas.

"We are not voting on the person. We're voting on the position. And although it can feel very personal when someone is trying to, you know, adjust your salary or eliminate your position, it is not about the person," she said.

County board member Steven Rieker, R-District 15, argued the county auditor's position is an anachronism with today's technology and systems of checks and balances to ensure financial transparency.

"Times have changed. We just are moving with that. Other counties have also made that decision to make the changes," he said.

County board vice chairman Jim Fennell, R-District 13, said it's not unprecedented for an elected body to ask voters a second time for a change via referendum. He also said there's precedent in consolidating or eliminating elected offices, such as the merger of the county clerk and recorder of deeds offices.

"Every month we have our our finances are out there for the public to see. We are not trying to hide anything. We're not trying to cover up anything of anything. We want to do a better job of digging in and finding any issues that we might have, and following the audit that we have to make any of those corrections," Fennell said.

But Thomas said bringing the referendum up again is akin to an abuse of power, referring to a statement Fennell made in an executive board committee meeting.

"Voters spoke and rejected your proposed referendum. But you still choose not to listen," she said. "Why, when the voters clearly spoke?"

Editor's note: Jessica Thomas is a member of the WCBU Community Advisory Board.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.