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ROCKFORD — Local officials say there are lessons to take away from having an elected official, such as Winnebago County Coroner Bill Hintz, face work-related criminal charges — and now is the time to act on them.
On Wednesday, state Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Cherry Valley, was joined by a contingent of area Republican and Democratic lawmakers, state's attorneys from Boone and Winnebago counties, and Winnebago County Board Chairman Joe Chiarelli to introduce Senate Bill 3460.
The proposed legislation is designed to protect citizens in cases when elected officials have been charged with crimes that put the public at risk.
"Under current law, local government employees charged with a crime related to their office can be placed on leave until their criminal case is resolved," he said. "However, countywide and township-wide elected officials indicted for work-related crimes cannot be put on leave. They are allowed to continue to work in their office until their legal matter is resolved in court, which could take years."
The proposed bill puts provisions in place to allow an elected official charged with a felony to be placed on leave until their case is resolved.
The legislation was born out of the corruption charges levied in 2020 against Winnebago County Coroner Bill Hintz.
In September, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul announced that a Winnebago County grand jury had indicted Hintz on six counts of official misconduct and six counts of theft of government funds.
These charges are on top of the ones Raoul's office filed against Hintz in October 2020. Previous charges include two counts of theft, 12 counts of forgery and 23 counts of official misconduct including stealing from the dead.
Chiarelli said the legislation not only protects the public, it also protects the accused.
"I really wanted to make sure that balance was there and that we protect all individuals and most importantly, we are protecting the offices they work in and represent," he said. "We have maintain integrity in these offices in Winnebago County and in the entire state of Illinois."
The Winnebago County Board called for Hintz's resignation but could not legally remove him from office during his elected term unless he was convicted.
In crafting the legislation, the area elected officials said they also wanted to make sure the process is not used as political tool to remove someone from office without just cause.
Senate Bill 3460 requires a three-fifths vote by a county board to direct the state’s attorney to determine if charges against a local government official are germane to the official’s office activities.
For example, if a county-wide elected official was indicted on a traffic charge, it would probably not put the public at risk if the official remained in office until their case was resolved. However, if the state’s attorney determines there is potential public risk associated with an alleged crime, the case would be taken to the chief judge of the circuit court. The judge would then make the ruling on whether the county official should be placed on administrative leave while their case is pending.
In the case of township-wide elected officials, it would be the township’s legal counsel who would make the ruling and take it to the court.
State Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, said all efforts will be made to have the bill passed this year.
He said, "If we don't show a level of haste now, that in turn damages the trust that we're trying to build with the community."
Chris Green: firstname.lastname@example.org; @chrisfgreen
This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Winnebago County Coroner Bill Hintz's charges prompt call for change