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At Tense County Clerk Debate, Uncertainty About Ethical 'Lines'

Kathy Michael and Nikita Richards
Jeff Smudde
Republican McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael, left, and her Democratic challenger Nikita Richards at Thursday's debate.

In the race for McLean County clerk, incumbent Republican Kathy Michael and her Democratic challenger Nikita Richards have often been at odds.

But on Thursday they appeared to agree on one thing: They say they're eager for the inquiries into the separate ethics complaints against them to be resolved.

Both candidates appeared at a debate at Heartland Community College, hosted by GLT and the McLean County League of Women Voters. It was moderated by GLT News Director Charlie Schlenker. Around 200 people attended.

Watch the debate via Facebook Live:

A complaint filed Sept. 26 by a supporter of Richards alleges Michael used county-owned computers to work on her campaign, then tried to destroy a county-issued laptop to conceal evidence. The McLean County Ethics Commission decided Monday to send the complaint to the state’s attorney for review.

The complaint against Richards accuses the City of Bloomington human resources employment coordinator of using her work computer to browse Democratic Party-aligned websites and shop online. The city is doing an independent review of the complaint.

Both Richards and Michael on Thursday again refuted the allegations against them, but said they welcomed the chance to prove their innocence.

Richards said the allegations against her are based on a misunderstanding of the responsibilities of her job with the city.

"I'm looking forward to finding out where the lines are. I certainly didn't mean to cross any, and I don't believe I did."

“Recruitment involves shopping and purchasing promotional items," Richards said.

Richards also said city IT staff issued an important caveat when they turned over her browing history via a records request—that Richards may not have actually visited some of the websites that turned up in her browsing data, due to links embedded in some websites.

“I think this is new territory for all of us,” said Michael. “I think we have to wait and see what the next steps are. I’m very confident that I didn’t do anything wrong. I think it’s just the nature of the climate that we live in right now. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Michael said in her eight years on the job, she’s never had a complaint against her office until those issued by her opponent. A Huffington Post article over the summer quoted Richards alleging Michael showed a history of voter suppression as clerk, including moving polling places out of minority and low-income neighborhoods.

Kathy Michael speaks
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael, a Bloomington Republican, is seeking her third term.

“My opponent is unfortunately following a national mantra that ascribes to a radical view of campaigning, creating conflict where none existed before, and character assassination to win at any cost,” Michael said.

Michael did, however, hint at uncertainty over acceptable social media use. Her county laptop's browing history indicated she used it to look at Richards' Facebook page.

“The whole thing of, what’s wrong with looking at Facebook, what’s not wrong with looking at Facebook, when can you look at Facebook, can you go here, can you go there—maybe we should just all shut down Facebook,” she said. “I don’t know the answer to that. But I’m looking forward to finding out where the lines are. I certainly didn’t mean to cross any, and I don’t believe I did.”

Will the Status Quo Hold?

Responding to a question about her four-year vision for the office of county clerk, Michael said there’s not much she would change.

“We’ll just continue on as we’ve done for the last eight years,” she said, touting a record of cost savings by reducing expenses. Michael said she would also continue pursuing cybersecurity measures as budgeting allows.

Nikita speaks into mic
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
Democratic challenger Nikita Richards is a Navy veteran who works for the City of Bloomington.

“I actually think it’s time out for the status quo,” said Richards. “I'm looking forward to bringing innovation and inclusion to the clerk’s office.”

If elected, Richards said she plans to implement a voter information protection program, as well as programs for rural voters such as mobile vital records registration and satellite early voting stations.

According to Michael, those programs would just add more expenses to deliver services residents don’t actually need.

“We did a survey on (mobile vital records),” she said. “We surveyed all the churches, the townships, the mayors, and only two responded that they felt they had a need.”

Another claim against Michael’s office involved the county’s election equipment.

“I do find it interesting that the (Bloomington Election Commission) was able to upgrade their electronic machines while the county clerk’s office has not,” said Richards in response to a question on candidates’ estimation of the cost to fold the BEC's duties into the county clerk’s office.

Dissolving the BEC

The Bloomington Election Commission oversees elections for city of Bloomington voters. The clerk handles elections for everyone else in the county.

referendum, supported by Republicans and Libertarians, will be on the Nov. 6 ballot asking voters whether the BEC should be dissolved. Richards said consolidation would “eliminate the confusion and inefficiency of having two bureaucracies” overseeing elections, though she supports creation of a new, nonpartisan countywide election commission in their place. Michael said she would follow advice from the state's attorney and avoid explicit support or opposition to dissolving the BEC, but said she appreciates the chance for voters to make a decision.

Richards said the county’s election equipment is nearly 17 years old and in need of replacement.

“Could you imagine if your computer or cell phone had not been upgraded or updated in that long?” she said.  

Richards contrasted the lack of spending on equipment upgrades with the current salary for the clerk’s position.

“The state of Illinois received $13.9 million to safeguard elections and upgrade equipment, and I will properly allocate funds, not use these funds to decorate office spaces or line the pockets of my business affiliates,” she said. “There is no reason we should pay county clerks a six-figure salary when families in our community are struggling to pay bills.”

Crowd at the debate
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
The packed house at Thursday's debate at Heartland Community College, hosted by GLT and the League of Women Voters of McLean County.

The clerk’s salary was $128,740 for fiscal year 2018, according to county budget records. Richards said if elected she would advocate for a reduction in her own salary to help the county’s bottom line.

Michael called Richards’ statements “false scare tactics,” saying the county’s equipment vendor recently reported the equipment is in good working condition and receives repairs as needed.

“We’re not going to go out and spend a half a million in taxpayer dollars when we don’t need to,” she said. “It’s just like my Honda, which is 10 years old. It works great because I get new parts for it when I need to. Greatly reduced costs than a Lamborghini perhaps that I would like.”

The election for McLean County clerk and several other races is Nov. 6.

WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.

Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.
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