| by Project Six

This originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune Newspaper the Daily Southtown on December 31, 2017

By Ted Slowik

The unusual situation involving Markham’s mayoral seat led to a big payday for an alderman serving as acting mayor.

Longtime 1st Ward Ald. Ernest Blevins, 86, collected a $34,615 windfall Nov. 3, according to documents provided by the city. The payment to Blevins was compensation for his service as mayor pro tem retroactive to May 3, records show.

Emails provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show several city officials questioned the payment to Blevins.

“The HR Department is not the enemy in this situation,” LaTrice Merriweather, Markham’s human resources director, wrote to City Treasurer Belinda Richardson on Nov. 1. “We are merely caught in the middle between the Mayor and the City Council (of which all are elected officials).”

Correspondence indicates Markham’s three other aldermen questioned whether Blevins should receive the full mayoral salary of $95,000 a year, plus an additional $20,000 annually for serving as liquor commissioner.

Council members later received a legal opinion that said Blevins was entitled to the additional compensation.

“The attorneys said he deserves the pay. What could you do?” Ward 2 Ald. Clifton Howard told me by phone Friday. “I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”

Annual compensation for each of Markham’s five aldermen is $20,000. Only four seats are filled; Blevins’ aldermanic seat is vacant while he serves as mayor pro tem, or acting mayor.

In addition to the lump sum payment, the city’s payments to Blevins increased beginning Nov. 3 to $3,653.85 every two weeks from the $769.24 paid to aldermen.

The Markham City Council on May 3 voted unanimously to appoint Blevins to serve as mayor pro tem. Blevins was sworn in by City Attorney Stephen Miller during a council meeting that evening.

The council needed to appoint someone to serve as acting mayor because the winner of Markham’s April 4 mayoral race is ineligible to serve. Roger Agpawa, fire chief in neighboring Country Club Hills, was the top vote-getter in the election.

Agpawa ran for mayor despite a 20-year-old federal felony conviction for fraud. State law prohibits convicted felons from holding elected municipal office. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx sued to prevent Agpawa from taking office. Agpawa is appealing a judge’s ruling that sided with the state’s attorney in the case.

Also, lawmakers are considering a measure to change state law and allow some convicted felons to hold local elected offices. The Illinois Senate on Oct. 25 approved Senate Bill 225 by a 40-17 vote, and the House is expected to consider the measure during the spring session.

Markham’s previous mayor, David Webb Jr., did not seek re-election after serving four terms. On Dec. 1, authorities announced a federal grand jury indictment alleging Webb’s role in a bribery and kickback scheme. Prosecutors allege Webb accepted about $300,000 in cash payments and campaign contributions.

Emails provided by Markham indicate city administrative staff sought answers regarding payroll for Blevins and that he inquired about his compensation soon after he was sworn in as mayor pro tem.

“The last thing I was told he was entitled to the Mayor’s salary,” Merriweather wrote in a June 12 email to Anthony Finch, the city’s assistant chief financial officer. “Definitely let us know because if he (doesn’t) receive the difference and back pay on this check he’s going to also ask us in HR and we need to be able to provide him an explanation.”

Efforts to reach Blevins for comment Friday were unsuccessful. Blevins continued receiving his alderman’s salary during the summer, pay records provided by the city show.

On Oct. 23, Blevins sent a memo to HR staff directing them to begin paying him the salaries for mayor and liquor commissioner “as well as the retroactive pay with the beginning date of May 3, 2017.”

The HR team requested a legal opinion in writing before making the change.

“I am not authorizing the payout at this time until I receive written approval from the attorney,” Richardson wrote to an HR generalist on Oct. 26.

In an email to Merriweather, Richardson was even more adamant.

“This control is legally my responsibility as the City Treasurer,” she wrote. “I’m not authorizing a pay-out.” She again asked for a letter from the city attorney “or City Council approval by official vote at (a) special or regular meeting.”

Finch responded to Richardson’s persistent requests for written authorization.

“When I talked to Atty. Miller, he said that if the Mayor(‘s) directive is to pay his salary then we should follow his directive since he is the boss of the appointed staff,” Finch wrote on Oct. 27.

In response to my FOIA request, Markham provided an Oct. 31 email to Miller, the city attorney, from Steve Adams, an attorney with the Chicago-based firm Robbins Schwartz. Adams has extensive experience working with local governments on public finance, election law and related issues, according to a biography on his firm’s website.

Adams cited case law and opinions from the Illinois attorney general’s office in stating his belief that Blevins qualified to receive salaries for serving as mayor and liquor commissioner.

“It is my opinion that Mr. Blevins possesses legal right and title to the office of mayor of the City of Markham, and is therefore entitled to the salaries established for mayor and liquor commissioner by the Markham City Council,” Adams wrote to Miller.

In a footnote, Adams raised the possibility that should Agpawa prevail in his bid to be seated as mayor, he might also have a right to claim compensation.

“If Roger Agpawa was successful in his pending litigation with the state’s attorney, and the final order established his right to hold the office from the date of the election (or shortly thereafter), he may have a claim to the mayor’s salary for roughly the same time frame,” Adams wrote.

Agpawa told me Friday via email he would not seek retroactive compensation if he prevails in his efforts to be seated as mayor.

“When I ran for office I told voters I would not take a full salary and reduce that pay,” Agpawa said. “I feel it would be inappropriate to receive pay during the interim time. To make the taxpayers pay twice would be unfair and not be right.”

I asked Agpawa what he thought about the compensation for Blevins.

“I would be in support of the mayor pro tem receiving compensation, provided by law and approval of the City Council,” he said. “The temporary position should be allowed some form of pay or compensation for the extra role and work that is performed.”

Project Six, a government watchdog group headed by former Chicago City Council Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, questioned in a Dec. 12 report the compensation for Blevins.

I spoke by phone with Kelly Tarrant and Michael Graham, authors of the Project Six report. They said the Markham City Council should have voted on whether to approve the increased compensation for Blevins, rather than accept the acting mayor’s directive for payroll administrators to make the change.

The group also criticized Markham leaders for a lack of transparency on the matter, saying council members should have discussed the issue during open session of a public council meeting.

Project Six representatives said they shared their findings with the offices of the Cook County state’s attorney and the Illinois attorney general. The state’s attorney’s office Friday did not respond to my request for comment.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan said the office was reviewing Project Six’s report.

Another email provided by Markham in response to my FOIA request indicates that following the bump in pay for Blevins, the city faced pressures to meet payroll and other expenses.

“As we close out the calendar year, we are asking that all department(s) hold off on any additional expenses,” Finch wrote to department heads on Nov. 30. “Please meet with your staff and plan out their work schedule over the next 3 weeks as we need to control payroll. The other option might be furlough days.”

Howard said he agrees with the legal opinion that Blevins is entitled to the additional compensation. If the council voted to oppose the increase, Blevins “might go to court and fight it,” which would be more costly to Markham taxpayers, he said.

I asked Howard how many hours a week Blevins worked at City Hall. Was it enough to deserve the $95,000 annual salary intended for a full-time mayor?

“Believe me, he’s there,” Howard said.

Howard said he doesn’t think the council can do much about Blevins’ compensation while questions about Agpawa’s eligibility to serve remain unresolved.

“The whole thing is, we’re in a unique situation,” Howard said. “Agpawa’s still fighting it.”