7389270480_1883240c99In 2007, the Cook County Board of Commissioners created the Office of the Inspector General. The Board tasked the IG with investigating corruption, fraud, waste and mismanagement, including by “separately elected County officials,” and instructed all county departments, employees and elected officials to cooperate in the IG’s investigations. The IG is empowered to conduct sworn interviews of county officials and may issue subpoenas for documents. Does the Ordinance run afoul of the state constitution by improperly stripping the County Assessor of some of his power? In early December, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously held that the answer was “no,” affirming the Appellate Court in Blanchard v. Berrios.

The IG began an investigation in 2015 into the circumstances surrounding the grant of two homeowners’ exemptions to an employee of the County Assessor’s office. The IG sent the Assessor a request for documents. The Assessor refused to turn over the material, advising the IG to try a Freedom of Information Act request.

Instead, the IG sent the Assessor a subpoena, demanding the same documents plus the employee’s personnel file. The Assessor objected to the subpoena, arguing that the IG lacked the authority to issue subpoenas to elected county officials. The IG sued the Assessor, seeking an order compelling his compliance. On cross motions for summary judgment, the trial court upheld the constitutionality of the IG’s office, and the Appellate Court affirmed. In an opinion by Justice Freeman, the Supreme Court affirmed.

According to the Illinois Constitution, every county must elect a “sheriff, county clerk and treasurer,” and “may elect or appoint” a “coroner, recorder, assessor [and] auditor.” The Constitution provides that offices “other than sheriff, county clerk, treasurer, coroner, recorder, assessor and auditor may be eliminated and the terms of office and manner of selected changed by county ordinance.” According to the Counties Code, “No county board may alter the duties, powers and functions of county officers that are specifically imposed by law,” but the board “may alter any other duties, powers or functions or impose additional duties, powers and functions.” 55 ILCS 5/5-1087.

The Assessor’s theory before the Supreme Court was that by requiring the Assessor’s cooperation with the IG investigation, the ordinance didn’t merely impose additional duties; it deprived him of the power to supervise the operations of his office without interference from or regulation by the IG. The Court rejected the Assessor’s argument.

First, the Court noted that the Assessor hadn’t cited any statute or constitutional provision giving him the authority to operate and supervise his office free from oversight or control. The Assessor cited People ex rel. Walsh v. Board of Commissioners, arguing that he had a common law power to supervise his office, but the Court noted that Section 4(d) of the Constitution, giving county boards the authority to modify common law powers, had been expressly adopted to overturn the holding in Walsh.

The Assessor argued that the ordinance exceeded the County’s home rule authority. The constitutional grant of home rule authority is intended to convey the broadest possible authority on local governments; a subject is off limits only where “the state has a vital interest and a traditionally exclusive role.” The Court found that the IG ordinance was aimed at detecting corruption, fraud, waste and mismanagement, and that that goal fell well within the scope of traditional police power granted to home rule units. The Assessor argued that the regulation of exemptions for real estate taxation was a matter of statewide concern, but the Court once again found that that wasn’t what the IG ordinance was about – the ordinance was aimed at detecting problems in all county offices.

Finally, the Assessor argued that because his office is elected, it is “separate” from Cook County for purposes of the limitations on home rule authority. Not so, the Court found; the Assessor clearly wasn’t part of the State or any of its agencies. The office wasn’t part of the school district. It must therefore be part of the Cook County government. Nor did cases limiting home rule units’ authority to project their power extraterritorially limit the IG’s authority.

Image courtesy of Flickr by John Pastor (no changes).