COUNTRY CLUB HILLS IL—The 16,000 residents of south suburban Country Club Hills are struggling through this economy just like you are. Taxes are up, homes are for sale, some are in foreclosure. Yet a joint investigation by WGN-TV and the Better Government Association found the mayor of that small town spending their money like it's a boomtown.
For 24 years, Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch has been the man in charge for this south suburban hamlet. He is a white mayor elected seven times in a town that's 85% African-American.
"A good businessman has to spend money to make money," said Welch.
AWGN-TV/ Better Government Association investigation found Mayor Welch spends a lot of money, taxpayer dollars, racking up thousands of dollars on his city credit card. On Saturdays, you can often find the mayor at the Chatham Pancake House. And sometimes on Sundays and even during the week. $26 dollars on Saturday, $173 dollars on Sunday and $216 dollars one Wednesday.
"Lots of meetings. Lot of activity," explained Welch.
When asked if other mayors have that many meetings, spending that much money at them, he said, "Let me say this I'm one of the full time mayor's in the state. I'm constantly active. I'm constantly doing things. I'm constantly bringing back money to my city and I'm talking millions. That doesn't happen sitting on your backside doing nothing."
So he's constantly going to meetings. He went 13 times to Aurelios pizza, 19 times to Mr. Benny's Steak House, 60 times to El Cortez. The mayor generously offers to pick up the tab - on the city's dime.
"I'm obviously not eating all those meals they're talking about. I'm buying those meals. I'm buying them to get people to do things for Country Club Hills. That's why I'm the lobbyist for us. And I'm not ashamed of that. I'm not ashamed of that at all," said Welch.
And while a bill for $376 dollars at Hooters might make some mayors blush, Welch does not. He said his staff bought chicken wings. Out of the 365 days in 2010, WGNTV's investigation found the mayor used his city credit card at restaurants 303 times.
Taxpayers also picked up the tab for the Mayor Welch golf league. On Tuesdays, you can catch the mayor after a round of golf treating volunteers to lunch on the city credit card.
"I don't feel bad buying them lunch. I feel honored having them do things for us. They have a lot of good information and they are honest and sincere people and it keeps our costs down and it helps us get the things we need. And they don't get paid a dime for doing it," said the mayor.
With WGN-TV cameras rolling one day this week, the mayor said he won't use the town's credit card this time. He didn't need to. He says he paid for brunch after winning a friendly bet off his golfing buddies volunteers for the 9-11 and the police and fire commissions.
The mayor drove off in his own undercover police vehicle which is an all-expense paid ride for a small town boss who will earn more $144,000 dollars next year.
"This is a mayor who doesn't understand the basic principle of good government. That it's our tax dollars not his," said Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association. "I'm not sure if there is a way to punish or reprimand a mayor, but he needs some sort of a slap upside the head to get back to reality and understand what you can and can't do as a public as a public servant. He is acting like a CEO of a 500 company with profits of billions of dollars a year and perhaps the capacity to give him some perks."
The mayor charged the city $435 dollars at the Apple Store, Broadway play tickets for nearly $1400 dollars, Build-A-Bear, Niketown and the Disney Store.
The mayor countered, "It's a small amount of money when you look at the overall emphasis of what I do."
Like the music venue, which is his pride and joy, its $7 million dollar cost has now become a political tripwire for the mayor. The theatre is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.
"So I'm not perfect. I don't wear sandals but I'll tell you this, I think we did the right thing and we've got to maintain what we have and maintain it as cheap as we can. One of the things we did was cut our budget," said Welch.
Except for the mayor's clothing allowance. The investigation showed a $585 dollar charge to Nordstrom which the mayor blamed on his staff for buying him a white tuxedo for when he introduces the R & B acts at the amphitheater.
The mayor says he'll keep charging away and is sending a strong message to his political foes.
"You're not going to scare me. You're not going to make me move away," he says. "You're not going to make me quit. I'm coming at you. And you're not going to get me with expenses."
The city council approved the mayor's $36,000 dollars allowance for city business. But our investigation shows he overspent it.
The mayor, who will make $144,000 dollars next year, explained that by saying he often gives his credit card to his staff who he says buys things the city need. However, between the mayor and one of his allies in Country Club Hills, the city manager, they spent $121,000 dollars last year on restaurants and miscellaneous stuff.