APR 26, 2021
‘Good government bill’ to winnow Board of Review candidates draws heat from Wendt, Kaegi
Cook County Board of Review Comm. Tammy Wendt is opposed a bill backed by her fellow commissioners Larry Rogers and Michael Cabonargi.
Members of the Cook County Board of Review are divided over a proposed state House bill that would bar candidates from running for the elected tax office unless they’re licensed to practice law in Illinois.
The two senior members of the three-member board are promoting the bill as a way to ensure its leaders are held to a higher professional standard in their work reviewing thousands of tax assessment appeals each year. But the newest member of the group has joined the ranks of critics who call the bill a ploy to thin the political field before all three commissioners run for reelection next year.
Comm. Michael Cabonargi (D-2) and Comm. Larry Rogers (D-3) asked Rep. Curtis Tarver (D-Chicago) earlier this month to insert the provision into a previously-filed filed bill (HB1356). The added restriction would apply in any “county with 3,000,000 or more inhabitants,” meaning only Cook County. DuPage County, the second-most populous in Illinois, has fewer than 1 million residents.
The bill cleared the House Revenue & Finance Committee on a party-line 10-6 vote on April 13. But it did not reach a vote during an hours-long House floor session on Friday, one day after Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi and newly elected Board of Review Comm. Tammy Wendt (D-1) went public with their opposition.
Rogers and Cabonargi told The Daily Line on Friday that their “good government bill” represents the “next natural step” in their multi-year effort to “professionalize” the office, which has until now involved hiring more licensed attorneys to the board’s staff.
“This is a quasi-judicial body — only a licensed attorney can represent a party before the Cook County Board of Review,” Cabonargi said. “The courts have acknowledged that the practice before the board is the practice of law, and it stands to reason that the commissioners on the Board of Review should be attorneys.”
The bill would only apply the campaign restriction to Cook County because “other Boards of Review have to decide if that’s appropriate for their agencies based on the matters before them,” Rogers said.
They also pointed to the 2020 election of Wendt, a longtime real estate and criminal defense attorney, to the board. Wendt defeated Abdelnasser Rashid, a non-lawyer who had been a chief deputy in Kaegi’s office, in last year’s March primary. Then in November, Wendt narrowly unseated Republican Comm. Dan Patlak, who is also not a lawyer.
“Voters made the decision last year that they want an attorney to represent them” on the board, Cabonargi said. “This is driven by what the voters and our constituents want.”
But Wendt did not even know her colleagues had proposed the measure until Thursday, when a legislator called to ask her thoughts, she said.
Hours after Wendt learned about the measure, she tweeted a six-part thread outlining her opposition, and she has since been calling legislators asking them to oppose it, she said.
“This would eliminate political opponents in all our elections next year, but I’m not afraid of opponents,” Wendt told The Daily Line on Friday. “This bill is self-interest-motivated. Eliminating so many qualified candidates for this position would be a disservice to the taxpayers.”
She added that she was miffed that Cabonargi and Rogers “used the fact that I’m an attorney to bolster their case” for the legislation despite never contacting her to ask her opinion about their proposal.
“Thank God somebody brought it to my attention,” Wendt said. “They were trying to get this slipped in under the radar…I think it’s disrespectful and unprofessional.”
Patlak, who said he has no current plans to run for his old office next year, wrote in a text message to The Daily Line Friday that the bill “is nothing but a cynical political ploy to manipulate the democratic process.”
“Whoever is behind it should be held accountable by the voters whose choices they are trying to diminish,” Patlak wrote.
Tarver, the lead sponsor of the House bill, did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Cabonargi and Rogers denied any political intent behind the bill, saying they crafted it only to make the office run more smoothly.
“This is not a bill targeted toward any one individual,” Cabonargi said. “This is something that’s a long time coming to continue the professionalism that we brought to the Board of Review.”
But the bill also raised a backlash from Kaegi, whose assessments have been at odds with the Board of Review’s calculations since his 2018 election. Kaegi last week launched a lobbying campaign against HB1356, and Friday morning he released a lengthy statement calling the bill “a step backward.”
The county assessor revved up his lobbying effort after learning that multiple township-level assessors were opposed, according to a spokesperson for the office.
“I know from experience that our property tax system needs ongoing reform,” Kaegi wrote in his statement. “But this bill would discourage reformers and real estate professionals from running for this public office. It would also create an unnecessary hurdle that is out of step with how other large property tax jurisdictions operate.”
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