Niles is hoping an elected ethics board will nip Illinois-style corruption. But critics say it may not have enough teeth.

James Johnson, a Skokie village trustee, implored the Skokie Ethics Commission to investigate the village’s mayor and attorney during a hearing two weeks ago, saying the two men had used their elected positions to gain political advantage. But the three Ethics Commission members, who had been appointed by the mayor, declined to investigate him.

Critics charge that it’s difficult for ethics officials to investigate ethical complaints against the powers-that-be who appointed them. Critics also point out that most or all ethics boards in Illinois, which range throughout the state, are limited because they have only advisory powers. They can investigate wrongdoing by officials, such as those on a city council or county board, but then must refer their findings to that same board so its members can consider whether to take action.

North suburban Niles, a town shaken by an ethics scandal in which the longtime mayor was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2010, floated a different approach. On April 4, voters there will elect the members of their ethics board, creating what may be the first board of its kind in Illinois.

Reform for Illinois Executive Director Alisa Kaplan and Steven Berlin, director of the Chicago Ethics Board, both said they didn’t know of any elected ethics boards.

“I’ve never heard of one,” Kaplan said, before adding: “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

Joe Makula, the Niles citizen who backed a referendum to create an elected ethics board in Niles, has said that the idea was to create more independence among the board members and accountability to citizens.

But experts who spoke to the Tribune warned that electing an ethics board created new concerns.

“Elections by themselves create their own politics,” said Chris Goodman, a professor of public administration at Northern Illinois University, noting the irony of electing the board members. “You have to do the job of politicking to get elected.”

Also, Kaplan said, the advisory nature of an ethics board — whether it’s elected or appointed — kneecaps its efficacy because any action such a board took would need approval by trustees.

“When the people who are being regulated have final say over how they’re regulated, that’s an inherent conflict of interest,” she said.

Kaplan also said an effective ethics board has to have “the skills and experience to conduct investigations. They have to be impartial. They have to have key elements of independence, whether that’s the ability to publish reports without asking the people that they oversee or in some cases, even some types of enforcement like imposing fines.”

In Niles, the elected board’s establishment and subsequent campaign has brought out divisive local political factions and prompted two lawsuits. Two candidates running for the board have past criminal convictions.

Since Niles’ former Mayor Nicholas Blase was convicted by a federal judge in 2010 for taking kickbacks from an insurance broker, the village has seen a slew of efforts to address government ethics and transparency. These include establishing term limits for the mayor and trustees and barring the mayor from appointing replacement members of the village board.

Niles officials fought the initiative to place a referendum measure for an elected ethics board on the ballot.

The question came before voters in April 2021 after Village Clerk Marlene Victorine declined to certify it as a ballot question for the November 2020 election, saying it was not an appropriate question. Makula, a Niles resident, filed a lawsuit, then took the matter to court and a judge ruled that the question should appear on the ballot, but only after the 2020 election was complete.

The village appealed that ruling with the consequence that the case was still in litigation during the April 2021 election.

The results of the referendum vote did not become public until after the legal battle was resolved, about two months later.

Niles Mayor George Alpogianis, who was then about to assume office, opposed the change to an elected ethics board, saying he didn’t think there were any conflicts of interest on the appointed board.

Makula declined to speak with the Tribune/Pioneer Press for this article.

Another salvo against the elected ethics board took place Feb. 7 when Niles resident Anthony Schittino filed a lawsuit against Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough and Village Clerk Marlene Victorine, asserting the new method of selecting ethics board members is not constitutional.

Specifically, the lawsuit states, “the referendum creates another government inside a government by having people elected to the Ethics Board.”

Schittino’s lawsuit asks the court to prevent Yarbrough from preparing ballots or counting votes in the ethics board election.

Yarbrough’s spokesperson Frank Herrera confirmed to Chicago Tribune/Pioneer Press that ethics board candidates would appear on the April 4 ballot.

Schittino told Pioneer Press in an email that he did not have a comment on the suit. A hearing on the case is set for March 30.

The legal wrangling that’s already taken place over an elected ethics board reflects the political battles among familiar names in Niles.

Makula, the citizen who championed the referendum for an elected board, is a familiar political opponent of the current village administration.

Candidates’ nominating petitions also reveal political allegiances. Niles resident Robert Zalesny, who associated with Makula when he signed on to a recently-resolved lawsuit Makula filed against a Niles-Maine District Library trustee, circulated petitions for David Carrabotta, Lisa Emmett-Stechman, Paul Kotowski and Joy Alfonsi, according to the candidates’ nominating petitions.

Makula personally circulated petitions for candidate David Laske, whose nominating signatures include incumbent Niles-Maine Library Board President Carolyn Drblik, Secretary Suzanne Schoenfeldt and Schoenfeldt’s husband and daughter.

Alpogianis, meanwhile, personally circulated petitions for sitting board member Vera Pandev and Jeffrey Kash, their petitions show.

In the April 4 election for the Niles-Maine District Library Board, Alpogianis has endorsed a slate of candidates seeking to challenge Makula, Drblik and Schoenfeldt, whereas ethics board candidate Carrabotta, a former Maine Township supervisor, has made a number of public comments supporting those three.

Most recently, the village has threatened five candidates with legal action for using images of Village Hall and village symbols on campaign literature, arguing that use of such images implies a village endorsement.

Records reviewed by Pioneer Press show that two candidates have prior criminal convictions.

Candidate Lisa Emmett-Stechman was convicted of battery in 1996 in Glendale Heights for pushing a woman, court records reviewed by Pioneer Press show.

Cook County Circuit Court records show that she was sentenced to probation and community service.

Commenting on her record to Pioneer Press, Emmett-Stechman said she had put her hands on a woman to try to prevent the woman from putting Emmett-Stechman’s then-very-young daughter into the back seat of a car while the woman was allegedly intoxicated.

“I literally just put my hands on her shoulders and said, ‘don’t ever put my daughter — and I didn’t say it that kindly — while you’re drunk in a car ever again,’” Emmett-Stechman said.

Incumbent ethics board member Jill Boysen was convicted of theft in 1997 in Northbrook, court records reviewed by Pioneer Press show.

Cook County Circuit Court records show that Boysen was sentenced to two years of court supervision.

Boysen had no comment on that conviction.