Fight for County Auditor position continues, despite election results

Published: Nov. 15, 2022 at 7:22 PM CST
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PEORIA (25 News Now) - Peoria County voters spoke on Election Day on whether or not they wanted the County Auditor position to remain. While the overwhelming majority said no, that decision may not be final, with multiple lawsuits challenging the process to get to this point.

Last Tuesday, voters saw a question on their ballots asking if the position of an internal auditor should be eliminated. It included the detail that getting rid of the position could save the county around $150,000 annually. Current auditor Jessica Thomas filed a lawsuit in September alongside citizen Karrie Alms, claiming that the decision to include that version of the question was unfair after a different version was also submitted earlier on.

It’s not the only suit Thomas is involved in. Last November, she filed against the County Board stating that they should restore her position and staff. That followed the approval of a decision to reduce funding to the office, and staffing down to one person.

As far as the county is concerned, her tenure ends this month. Election results show 70% of voters supported the elimination on the ballot. That lead to Friday, when a letter was issued to Thomas and her attorney, Justin Penn, stating that she has until November 30 to wrap up her affairs in the office. If that doesn’t happen, the County says they’ll address it should it come up.

Thomas’s side argues there was no definitive date for when the office will be closed, with the appeal challenging the language still pending. But officials say they already have the resources for audits.

“Your county government is well run, we have good financial policies and procedures in place, and those minimize the risk of fraud,” says Peoria County Administrator Scott Sorrel.

That’s not how Penn sees it.

“The voters were mislead,” he says, addressing the way the referendum was presented on the ballot.

The basis of their argument brings into question whether or not the Board even has the power to make certain kinds of decisions, including cutting the auditor’s term short, despite the results of an official election.

“It is unconstitutional to eliminate the ordinance by statute, and there is an authority that says you cannot alter the length of a term,” says Penn.

The letter was distributed despite the fact Thomas still has two years remaining in her original term. But the County is standing firm, with full certification of the vote coming up later this month.

“Yes, the election commission does have to certify the result on November 23,” says Sorrel. “But this is not a close race by any stretch of the imagination.”

Sorrel adds since Thomas will no longer be on the County’s payroll, she will not receive compensation for her remaining time, either. That’s including legal fees for the court-appointed attorney, as well as any benefit plans.

Right now, Sorrel says the Board wants taxpayers to understand that the County is a ‘mature’ organization, one that remains well-run with its credit, finances, and more.

“The voters spoke, and I think the democratic process worked the way it’s supposed to work.”

Throughout the litigation process, the County states it plans to cite older court rulings on similar questions about referendums. In the letter delivered to Penn and Thomas, several past court cases in Illinois are referenced, pointing to the abolition of the rights of the office, including salaries. But Penn says that doesn’t make it the law.

“Using the results to terminate early an elected official two years before her term has ended, that’s something that I would think the voters of Peoria would care a lot about.”

Up until this point, both sides have been corresponding via court filings, but all agree decisions need to be left up to higher legal authorities. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday morning in front of Judge Mack, overseeing both these cases, at the Peoria County Courthouse. Each side says that’s when they hope to get answers to many of their questions. 25News was told proceedings could possibly take months before a conclusion is reached.