A middle-class south suburb whose mayor has been attacked for high spending is also home to a highly paid City Council with big expense accounts to pay for everything from margaritas to wedding gifts, the Tribune has found.
Country Club Hills' 10 aldermen represent just 16,500 people, but they are paid roughly $31,000 a year and given an unusual $9,000-a-year expense account.
The Tribune found those individual funds are essentially used as walking-around money. They have paid for hundreds of meals — including an outing with an intern to Hooters, an upscale Christmas Eve dinner and two meals to discuss "high taxes."
The aldermen also spend thousands on gift cards — ranging from $900 in Christmas gifts to $25 at Toys R Us for a local girl bitten by a dog. The charges to taxpayers include baseball games, concerts, bowling, resident water bills and even a resident's red-light camera ticket.
Two aldermen hit up the city for nearly $100 to cover expenses for attending a political fundraiser for Cicero's mayor.
The expense accounts, salaries and other council extras come in at a little less than $500,000, or about $30 per resident, per year.
Bigger towns have councils that cost less. And the aldermen in question recently criticized the city's mayor over his expenses, though they say their own salaries and spending are justified.
"We ensure that the city services reach (the people) anytime," said Ald. Frank Martin. "We do a good job."
The Tribune reviewed about $130,000 in reported spending from expense accounts since 2009 and found:
•Aldermen spent $18,862 for meals, usually reported as meetings with residents and sometimes to discuss the town's high taxes and budget problems.
•They spent $18,263 for gifts and direct assistance to residents, frequently in the form of gift cards for graduation, wedding and birthday presents.
•They spent $9,920 on travel, including one Washington trip for an alderman just before he resigned.
The revelations come after WGN-TV reported in June that Mayor Dwight Welch was spending tens of thousands of dollars on meals, gifts and other items via his city credit card. That is on top of his $140,000-a-year pay.
The aldermen voted to take away Welch's credit card, then pushed through a round of politically charged layoffs to help ease pressure on the town's $35 million budget.
Now, Welch is blasting the aldermen's pay and expense accounts, saying he would push for a referendum measure to reduce the council's cost and size.
"It is ridiculous," the veteran mayor said. "They shouldn't be getting this kind of money."
Some aldermen now say they are looking to reform their expense accounts, but it remains unclear how they might do that.
The financial package bestowed on Country Club Hills aldermen is out of sync with other towns the Tribune polled, including much larger cities and similarly sized suburbs.
None of the 10 towns polled provides anything like a $9,000-a-year expense account to council members.
"I have never heard of that in my life," said Midlothian Village Administrator James Lang. Trustees in that town of 13,000 make about $6,000 a year.
Among the towns polled, yearly pay for council members ranges from less than $1,000 in South Holland to about $19,000 in Joliet.
Generally, the bigger the city, the higher the pay for elected officials.
Elgin, Richton Park, Schaumburg and Park Forest all pay their board members $10,000 a year or less, with populations ranging from about 13,000 to 101,000. Alsip, Tinley Park and Aurora pay their board members between $13,000 and $17,000, with populations ranging from 19,000 to 171,000.
Six of the towns provide health coverage for their board members, which Country Club Hills aldermen lack. Eight of the towns have only six board members. Joliet has eight and Aurora 12.
The Country Club Hills' expense accounts come in the form of $2,250 checks every three months. To get the checks, the aldermen have to turn in a pile of receipts and a rough log of how they spent the previous check.
Ald. James Ford said his expense account allows him to directly help residents truly in need.
Many of the gift cards he bought went to kids in his mentoring program who got good grades, he said. One time Ford covered a $100 red-light ticket for a resident who he said lost his job and was facing foreclosure.
"We have a lot of citizens in our community with needs," he said.
Yet David Morrison, associate director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said the setup begs for problems.
"Some of the uses of the money seem laudable, but should it really be up to the whim of one alderman on how to allocate this money?" Morrison said. "It does seem like an awfully lax management of public funds."
Morrison singled out as especially troubling the $96 reported as being spent in relation to a golf fundraiser at Cog Hill for Cicero Town President Larry Dominick in August 2009.
Receipts show former Ald. Sherman Williams spent $64 on two items in the pro shop at the Lemont golf course while Ald. Tyrone Hutson spent $32 on hot dogs, a sandwich and sports drinks for him and other aldermen at the event.
"It is hard to see how there is any benefit to taxpayers to pay for them and their friends to attend a fundraiser," Morrison said. "It is still a private event organized by a candidate to support their election."
When the Tribune tried to ask Hutson about the expense Monday, he declined to comment. Williams said he wasn't sure what he spent the money on in relation to the event and said he wasn't even aware it was a political fundraiser.
"All I know is I didn't shoot well that day," Williams said.
Page after page of expense records shows aldermen picking up the tab for dinners they report as being with residents or city workers to discuss city issues.
Ald. Steven Burris spent about $2,600 on dinners, lunches and breakfasts in 2009 and 2010. Burris said he has to meet with residents at restaurants because he doesn't meet them at his home and said he hasn't been allowed to meet them at City Hall.
At least six times last year, Burris reported the meals were held over talks about the city's budget and property taxes. On Christmas Eve, Burris reported spending nearly $150 at an upscale restaurant for a meeting on the town's planned outlet mall.
Burris said the restaurant spending isn't a waste: "Just keep the bill to a minimum. We don't do it every day."
Aldermen routinely paid for ward picnics, baseball outings for local youths and concert tickets at a local venue out of their funds. One alderman facing re-election spent $500 to sponsor a ward Super Bowl party.
Cellphone bills took up a little less than a quarter of the spending, coming in at more than $28,630.
Aldermen spent about as much on donations to various groups, ranging from local churches to national charities.
Most of the council's spending on travel came from Williams. Since 2009, he reported taking four National League of Cities conference trips on the taxpayer dime.
From November to March, Williams reported taking trips to Denver and Washington, spending about $4,300 on registration, plane tickets, hotels and rental cars. He then retired in May.
Williams said he registered for the last conference in the nation's capital before deciding to retire. He needed to attend, he said, in order to officially step down as head of the league's Illinois Black Caucus.
"I wasn't going to abandon my responsibilities there," Williams said.
Records of the spending provided to the Tribune were often handwritten and sometimes illegible. The Tribune couldn't identify how about $6,200 was spent.
The Tribune asked for all expense reports dating to January 2009, but the reports provided didn't appear to cover all of that time for a few of the aldermen. Little information was provided for spending in the first full quarter of 2011 — a period that included contested local elections. There were no records for the three new aldermen elected in April.
The account logs for one former alderman frequently lacked line-item dollar figures and explanations for spending along with dates.
Ironically, cutting the spending may be politically difficult for the council. Some aldermen said residents are now used to having them pick up the tab for lunch or chip in for a graduation party.
Ald. Cynthia Singleton is one of them. She reported spending $900 in 2009 on Christmas gift cards for residents of her ward.
"We try to help out as many as we can," Singleton said. "It is the citizens' money."
Joseph Ryan is a Tribune reporter; Alicia Fabbre is a freelance reporter.