KANKAKEE — Kankakee County Auditor Jake Lee has long been in debate with the county board and its chairman, Andy Wheeler, about the auditor’s legal authority.
Since he was elected in 2016, Lee has fought to gain back his office’s authority to perform general accounting duties. Lee has said this provides a check on the board, which approves spending.
The battle has reached a breaking point as Lee, as the county auditor, filed suit on Aug. 14 in Kankakee Circuit Court against Kankakee County, the county board and Wheeler.
The complaint asks for the “court’s intervention to declare the present financial policies of the county to be in contravention of the law, to establish that the office of auditor is being improperly interfered with and effectively occupied by other county officials, and otherwise cease the interference with plaintiff executing the lawful duties and obligations of the Kankakee County auditor.”
The circuit court has appointed DeKalb County State’s Attorney to represent the plaintiff and Grundy County State’s Attorney to represent the defendants. No trial date has been set.
In 2003 the county split the auditor and finance departments because it said the federal government required more checks and balances. If the county violated the federal directive, it would have jeopardized millions in grants, Wheeler told the Daily Journal in 2019.
In his complaint, Lee also contends, “the defendants have interfered with the ability of Plaintiff to operate as the ‘general accountant’ and ‘keeper of accounts’ without providing (or having) any expressed legal basis, and are openly refusing to allow him to perform his statutory duties.”
Also in the complaint, Lee says the board’s creation of the finance department on Oct. 14, 2003, was ‘vague’ and the separating of the auditor and finance departments acts to “segregate” their duties. Steve McCarty is the current finance director for Kankakee County.
Further, the lawsuit contends, “It is not lawful to separate the duties of an elected official and transfer them to a newly created appointed office, in this case the Finance Department. As such, this Resolution must be declared void.”
In March 2019 Wheeler supported a bill in the state Legislature, introduced by state Rep. Tom Bennett, R-Gibson City, that would make it optional for counties to have auditors handle accounting duties. The proposal never gained enough support in the Legislature to gain passage. With its failure, the accounting responsibilities were to transfer back to the auditor on Dec. 1, 2019.
Lee said that never happened.
“Otherwise, we wouldn’t be suing,” Lee said.
Wheeler declined to comment further on the lawsuit other than to say, “The county will be making a statement by our attorney at the next county board meeting.”
That meeting is Sept. 8.