Lake Forest City Council unaware of nearly $200,000 payout to lobbying firm
What had been intended to be a short-term agreement between a lobbying firm and the Lake Forest City Council to secure an Amtrak rail stop in the city turned into a nearly $200,000 expense that went unnoticed by city officials for nearly two years.
City Manager Bob Kiely, authorized to spend up to $20,000 without City Council approval, arranged monthly payments of $9,500 to Washington, D.C.-based Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell (CCH) to secure a rail stop on Amtrak’s Hiawatha line and obtain funding for a pedestrian underpass, the Chicago Tribune recently reported.
“When we officially started, we thought that it could be just potentially a couple of months and it would be under my authority of $20,000,” Kiely told the Lake County Gazette. “But it progressed and should have come back to the City Council and that’s where it was my fault to not bring it back to the City Council at that point in time.”
Kiely said his involvement in the strategy of interacting with the lobbyists overshadowed his responsibility on the administration of the monthly bills, causing the payments to continue unnoticed until an activist group brought it to the council’s attention.
By the time the city canceled the contract on Dec. 1, a total of $192,911 had been paid out to CCH.
City officials were unaware of the expenditure because it fell under the category of budgeted monies and was not specifically brought up in council meetings, Kiely said.
“I don’t want to say that the council saw it and didn’t pay attention to it, because on a regular basis they don’t see the individual invoices because as you can imagine, there’s quite a lot of them on a monthly basis,” he said.
Lake Forest Mayor Robert Lansing and former Mayor Donald Schoenheider knew about the payments, but are not culpable for the oversight, according to Kiely.
“I would say that in terms of the administration of any contract, that is really not the responsibility of either of the mayors,” Kiely said. “And that’s partly again my fault because since they were actively engaged it didn’t even dawn on me the rest of the council wasn’t aware of what we were doing or the expenditure and so forth.”
Kiely said the council has since held two meetings this week to address the situation.
“They do have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers, the residents of Lake Forest,” he said. “So it is appropriate for them to find out what they can do as to what happened and most importantly what can we do going forward to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Meanwhile, the city will proceed with plans to get the Amtrak rail stop and pedestrian underpass, Kiely said.
It was in this capacity the CCH was hired, he said, to bring all the regulatory parties and Amtrak together to move forward. CCH was also utilized to secure funding for various sources, something that has not yet been done.
CCH completed the first task, however; and Amtrak has approved the plan on the condition that the pedestrian underpass be in place first.
Kiely said the city is currently finalizing the underpass design, and will be seeking state and federal funding to pay for that. The estimated cost is expected to be $8 million to $9 million.
With an unusually high number of pedestrian-rail deaths in Lake Forest cited in newspaper reports between 2008-2014, Kiely said safety was the main reason for the Amtrak rail stop.
Fourteen Hiawatha trains pass through Lake Forest daily at speeds of up to 79 mph and the Amtrak stop would mean a slower rate of speed through the city, he said.
The current financial and political environment in Springfield and Washington, D.C., has made it challenging for the city to find available funding, he said.
“At some future date, the City Council will have to revisit that question as to whether or not to engage lobbyists or some such to obtain the funding for the underpass.”