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Conflicts and Conundrums

To disclose or not to disclose, that is the question

Illinois Times

February 16, 1979

The only thing transparent about conflicts of interest in Springfield's local politics is the attempts by office-holders to avoid admitting to them. I am less certain now than I was then that full disclosure would have made improved Springfield government decision-making, but at least we would have known a little more about why it was so wayward. 


In a recent piece detailing the property holdings of Springfield streets commissioner Frank Madonia, the Springfield "State Journal-Register's" Political columnist Al Manning reminded us that elected city officials are not required by state law to disclose such holdings. Madonia's, for instance, saw the light of day only because he revealed them voluntarily when he began his campaign for mayor. Madonia favors an ordinance requiring by law what in his case was required by political prudence; so does Mike Houston, his opponent in the April city election.


The point of such an ordinance would be to eliminate or reduce certain kinds of conflicts of interests among elected municipal officials. Says Manning by way of illustration: "Under the present law, the public doesn't really know if a commissioner might have a financial interest in property which is being re-zoned." Madonia has quite properly abstained in the past when his property came before the council for zoning. But is that enough? For example, it is perfectly conceivable that a fellow commissioner eager for Madonia's support on the council might choose to cultivate Madonia by giving him a sympathetic vote on such zoning matters. The distorting effect on the conduct of the city's business would be the same whether the biased vote was cast by Madonia or by his hopeful ally.


Simple abstention, in short, may be sufficient to observe the political niceties arising from conflicts between an official's public and private business, but it is insufficient to cover the legal ones. Three years ago, for example, the state attorney general advised that under Illinois' Corrupt Practices Act it is illegal for a school board to act on a contract with a teacher who is married to one of the board's members, even if the board member in question doesn't vote on the contract. If the principle embodied in that law applied to Springfield's city council, any action such as zoning changes pertaining to the property of its members would be illegal even if the owner/member abstained. The only solution to the conundrum would be to require that council members divest themselves of all property holdings, including their own homes.


Unreasonable? Certainly, but not far-fetched. Property is by its nature compromising. Consider as an example the lingering controversy in Springfield over the development of a southwest side street plan. For months the city council has been trying to devise a road network that will reconcile the conflicting interests of developers, residents, and traffic engineers in that fast-growing corner of the capital city.


Of the five men who voted on the matter, three—commissioners Henneberry Madonia and Ward--—live within the area affected. They are interested parties by every possible definition. During a council meeting in 1977 at which the council considered whether to amend an ordinance closing a street in the neighborhood to through commercial traffic, Commissioner Ward noted jokingly that his wife was "one of the cheerleaders" who'd crowded into the council chambers to argue against the amendment. The audience laughed, and Ward voted anyway, in favor of his wife and her friends.


More recently, Commissioner Jim Henneberry held up delivery of the council's street plan for the area until Madonia agreed to an amendment barring a future direct connection between that same street. Iles Avenue, and a large commercial, development planned to be built nearby. Henneberry argued that such a direct connection would encourage shoppers to drive on lies, changing it from a residential to a commercial avenue. Henneberry lives on that stretch of Iles.


This fuzzing of public service and private interest is not new in Springfield. Indeed, a great many residents assume that commissioners (who are elected at large) always tend to favor their own neighborhoods. Last year the Citizens for Representative Government argued against retention of the commission form of government on just those grounds. That it survives as an issue in even the current city election campaigns is suggest by Henneberry's ads, which stress his concern "for all Springfield."


Illinois has laws on the books proscribing conflicts of interest among local officials, but they are ambiguous and difficult to enforce. The problem is that no one, least of all the people who presume to know, knows exactly at which point an elected official must absent himself from decision-making to avoid a conflict of interest. This is partly because no one has yet specified precisely what "interest" means. The word is most commonly taken to mean financial interest (it is one of the pruderies of the middle-class reformer that he construes greed for money as the only lust that might interfere with the proper discharge of one's public duty) but that definition raises more questions than it answers.


For example, in a discussion of a landmark ethics case, People V. Shoresman, that appeared in "Illinois Issues' magazine, Paul Thurston noted that under the law as interpreted in that case, board member has a conflict of interest when he votes on a teacher salary schedule if he is married to one of the teachers affected by that schedule. This is true even though such schedules are typically the result of negotiations involving many people and reflect certain accepted standards for compensation such as years of schooling and teaching experience, and cannot reasonably be said to have been manipulated by a single board member for the benefit of his spouse.


The conflict is real enough, but the interest is impossibly remote. Using this standard, concludes Thurston, "It is difficult to understand how a property-owning board member who votes against taking a tax referendum to the public . . . is not in a conflict of interest for saving himself money on his tax bill." It has been proposed that the General Assembly define exactly what constitutes a disqualifying financial interest. But that is a task for a philosopher, not a prince. Defining precisely when an official becomes corruptible is as daunting (and perhaps ultimately as frivolous) as defining precisely when a fetus acquires a soul.


Some of the more zealous ethics crusaders have suggested that, say, a farmer who also sits in the General Assembly should be made to exempt himself from voting on legislation affecting farming. One might just as easily disqualify female legislators from voting on ERA by virtue of their sex. In any event, it can be argued in response that a farmer is qualified to vote on farm matters precisely because of his interest, since his decision would be informed by a deeper understanding of the issues than is usual among our dilettantish lawmakers. Clearly, so rigorous a standard would prevent any public business from being done at all unless one opted for a system in which, as some have said, the only people who can hold public office are those who own nothing, know nothing and earn nothing.


As Thurston noted in Illinois Issues, "There is much confusion as to what is legal public service and what is conflict of interest." Conflicts of interest become ethical issues only in certain cases, making their definition a matter of politics rather than principle—though often they are masked in principle. Some observers have suggested stiffer disclosure laws for public officials that would force them to make their interests public. Thus informed, the theory goes, the voters would decide whether an official's conduct was an unpardonable breach of trust and, if so, turn the rascal out at the soonest opportunity. The people would be the arbiter of public conduct, in other words, instead of the courts.


Whether one thinks conflict of interest should be a political offense or a criminal one depends, I suppose, on whether one has placed more faith in the voters of the legal system. Obviously, it will not do to have lawmakers who are venal or corrupt. But it is true (and here I must resort to a cliché) that one cannot legislate ethics. This is true not just because laws cannot compel people to be honest—they usually only compel them to be careful—but because it is a hopeless proposition philosophically. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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