Lancaster County Treasurer Andy Stebbing was not in the room, and no one said his name, but his presence was unmistakable as county commissioners considered a new policy Thursday for handling expense claims from elected county officials.
In the future, the commissioners themselves would look at and approve expense claims from the county's eight elected officials: the sheriff, county attorney, public defender, county engineer, assessor, clerk, treasurer and clerk of the district court.
Those claims would be available online as part of the agenda for the commission's weekly staff meeting, so anyone with a computer can look at them, based on the proposed policy.
The issue arose after commissioners became aware that Stebbing was reimbursed for mileage for at least 10 trips to the Lincoln Auto Auction in Waverly over the past two years.
Stebbing said he went on official county business, because the many dealers who attend the auction are also big users of the treasurer's motor vehicle offices and services.
But Stebbing has also been charged with five felonies stemming from cars he purchased at the auction.
No one outside Stebbing’s office approves his mileage forms before they are paid under current County Board policy.
For now, department heads approve expense claims from their employees, and Kerry Eagan, the County Board’s chief administrative officer, approves expense requests from department heads. But no one reviews expense requests of the eight separately elected county officials.
Under the proposed policy, those requests would go through Eagan before moving to the commissioners. Egan said he’s not an auditor, and it would be more like a “sniff test from me.”
Commission Chairman Todd Wiltgen said the proposal addresses a fundamental issue: “I don’t care who you work for or what you do, you should not sign your own expense reports.”
A former U.S. congressman from Illinois, Aaron Schock, is being prosecuted for falsifying expenses, Wiltgen said. "We are dealing with taxpayer money. We need to do a better job of accounting for it."
Commissioners could still talk to the elected official before the meeting or during the open meeting if they have questions about specific expenses, he said.
The information, attached electronically to the agenda, would be more readily available to the public, be more transparent and hopefully deter any abuses in the process, Wiltgen said.
When he worked as a staff member in Congress “all my expense reports were readily available to the public.” Wiltgen said he rarely claimed reimbursement, and when he did, he knew it was a public record.
Commissioner Jennifer Brinkman said she understood the concern because “we have an issue now.” But she worried it might be an overreaction.
“I don’t have a different solution. But it feels like a bit much at this point,” she said.
Commissioners, who serve both administrative and legislative roles, already do a lot of detail work in public meetings, approving claims and contracts.
But Wiltgen pointed out that under state law it is the County Board’s responsibility to approve all claims.
“It would be a simple hyperlink to the agenda. If there are questions, we ask questions. I don’t think it would take long.”
Commissioner Roma Amundson suggested the board could try this approach for a year and then re-evaluate and change it if it is cumbersome.
"What if an elected official just says, 'I'm not going to do it?'" asked Commissioner Bill Avery.
He wouldn’t get paid, Wiltgen replied.
County commissioners can't tell elected officials they cannot sign their own expense request forms, Wiltgen said. ”But we can tell them we are not going to pay them until we look at it."