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Geneva Township Highway Commissioner candidates clash over spending

Published: Saturday, March 30, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, April 1, 2013 11:03 a.m. CDT

GENEVA  – The race for Geneva Township Highway Commissioner between incumbent Mark Wissing and challenger Michael Abts has ratcheted up tension after Abts alleged that Wissing is withholding public information and Wissing wasted public money on frivolous purchases.

Abts has filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests seeking Wissing’s emails, four years of phone records and all of his receipts in his role of highway commissioner. Wissing and Abts are on the ballot in the April 9 consolidated election. Wissing was elected in 2009 and is seeking a second term.

Abts said he wanted to see whether Wissing was using his highway account for personal business. Abts also sought receipts detailing Wissing’s spending as highway commissioner, and identified several as wasteful or pointless. Among those Abts criticized were a $5,100 laptop computer, $1,500 in embroidered clothing, $700 for a catered lunch for fellow highway commissioners and $539 for 20 printed invitations to the lunch.

Abts has appealed to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, as he has waited five weeks on one of the requests. The back-and-forth between Abts, Wissing and the highway district’s attorney, Ken Shepro, resulted in Shepro replacing Sheri McMurray as interim FOIA officer.

In a March 20 letter dismissing McMurray, Wissing alleged that McMurray was “unnecessarily, unjustifiably and deliberately confrontational and insubordinate.” McMurray did not return a voice mail message seeking comment.

Abts has appealed to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office on one of the Freedom of Information Act requests.

“I asked for all incoming and outgoing emails,” Abts said. “I just received incoming, no outgoing emails.”

In a March 8 letter to Abts, McMurray responded to his records request, saying, “I have no access to those documents, which are in the sole possession and control of Township Highway Commissioner Wissing. I have requested copies of the same from [the] Township Highway Commissioner. No copies of ‘sent’ emails have been provided.”

Wissing said he does not send emails from his township account and never has logged into it. Wissing said he uses a personal email account for his business, but he sends a copy to his township account so there is a record on the township’s server when emails pertain to township business. Wissing said he would get the “sent” emails to fulfill Abts’ open records request.

Also pending is a request for four years of Wissing’s cellphone records. Shepro said AT&T’s records go back one year, and they are waiting for the provider to send the list of numbers called.

Abts said Wissing’s spending is not in the taxpayers’ best interest. Wissing said the laptop is the type used in police cars and plow trucks, where the hard drive will not be damaged when it’s jostled around. Most of the embroidered clothing, Wissing said, was for him while doing highway work.

“When I was elected, I needed some clothes,” Wissing said. “I’m working with asphalt, going out in the middle of the night.”

But not all of it was for his use. According to information received from Abts’ FOIA requests, Wissing ordered 24 hats with the township logo on them in December 2009. Wissing said he gave a hat to each trustee, the supervisor and the sheriff, and kept the rest.

“I go through about two hats a year,” Wissing said.

Other items were given out to guests who came to the groundbreaking ceremony at the Wenmoth bridge, he said. As to the $700 luncheon catered by the Little Owl on March 17, 2011, Wissing said that was a seminar on new federal regulations for street signs. All the other highway commissioners came, but so did officials from Kane County and the state transportation department.

Wissing said the luncheon was hosted by his department because it was his turn. Each highway department, he said, takes a turn hosting seminars. An invoice shows 50 fried chicken dinners were catered. What was uneaten was donated to a local shelter, he said. Wissing conceded that perhaps he should not have spent $539 on 20 invitations to the seminar, especially after he already sent email invitations.

“Maybe I spent too much,” Wissing said.

Abts said he was running for highway commissioner because he had heard that Wissing was lobbying township trustees to make it a full-time job.

“He’s trying to grow government,” Abts said. Wissing said the highway commissioner’s job already is a full-time job.

“I’m not elected as a part-time guy; it’s 24/7,” Wissing said. “I took the trustees around to show what my responsibilities are. It’s already a full-time job. It had nothing to do with lobbying or politicking.”

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