2012 election candidate questionnaire: John Farney, Champaign County auditor
2504 E Florida Ave, Urbana, 61802
Education: Diploma, Unity H.S., Tolono; Associate of Arts, Liberal Arts & Sciences, Parkland College, Champaign; Bachelor of Arts, Political Science, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston
Occupation: Employee in Champaign County clerk's office since 2007.
Political experience: unsuccessfully ran for Champaign County Board District 9 seat in 2006 and for Urbana city clerk in 2005.
1) What makes you better qualified than your opponent to be county auditor?
I believe that I have many qualifications that make me stand out in this race. First, I have practical ideas to improve the auditor's office — create an audit commission that brings together community members to look at county government and its function; create a fraud hotline that residents can report suspected exhibits of waste and fraud for investigation; make county financial documents easily searchable, including everything from everyday bills and payments, to salaries, to larger contracts awarded by the county. All of these ideas can be accomplished at little (if any) cost to the county budget. Second, I have a longtime track record of interest and involvement in county government. I have observed and commented in the public forum on county issues for over a decade. Even before my employment by the county, I became involved, spoke on behalf of my neighbors, and acted upon county issues. This is my home, I am committed to Champaign County. Finally, I believe my status as an employee of the Champaign County Clerk's office has made me uniquely qualified to serve as auditor. I have seen firsthand the operation and interaction of the auditor's office with other county departments. I understand how the office needs to run to ensure optimum efficiency within the county government system. I have been actively involved in budgetary issues over the past five years. As an employee representative, I have been at the table during negotiations that resulted in savings to the county budget during the economic downturn, while preserving county jobs and maximizing the use of taxpayer dollars. Again, as an employee representative, I have been an instrumental voice in changing the way employee health care is offered at Champaign County. After repeatedly questioning the system in place, broker services were put out for bid, and with a new broker (working at a lower cost than the previous broker) taxpayer dollars have been saved for the past three years in negotiating health insurance with a regional health insurer. The work of the health insurance committee, of which I am a charter member, has saved county taxpayers over $1 million during its three years of existence. No one will need to give me a tour of the Brookens Center or introduce me to department heads, no one will need to bring me up to speed on county financial issues. I'm already deeply involved and educated. I'm ready to tackle these issues as an independent watchdog on day one.
2) Are there any significant changes you expect to immediately make in the office once elected?
The first significant change — I'll be at work! It's ridiculous to think that this is a significant change, but the incumbent and his political allies have allowed this to become an issue. I will change this. I will be a hands-on auditor, involved in the day to day operation of the office. I plan on taking on duties within the office, as well as working on special projects such as the audit commission and fraud hotline. An additional change that has been suggested to me by other department heads is to make utilizing the services of the auditor's office more user-friendly. There's a lot of paperwork that is shuffled between offices. In today's society, we need to work toward a paperless workplace to improve efficiency. I'd also like to see common sense applied to decisions made by the auditor's office — there's no reason to send multiple memos and invoices to offices over things such as a newspaper subscription bill that goes across two fiscal years and has a balance of less than a dollar in one year. But that's the commonplace right now. We need to do better. Finally, while this may not happen immediately, it is on the radar. We must improve our accounting software within county government. The current system has been in place since before I was born. Again, common sense and user friendly is a must, while at the same time finding the best value for taxpayer dollars.
3) Do you view your role with the County Board as collaborative or combative?
I believe that the county auditor should strive to be collaborative with the county board as all of us should have the common goal of an efficient and effective county government. I'd like to work with the board and county administration to make this a reality. However, I am not afraid to call out inefficiencies and waste by the county board. Again, I have a track record of doing so over the last decade, both commending the board on many occasions while also calling them on the carpet when necessary. I think that my role as the elected official is to insulate my employees from the political realm — my employees will report to me, I report to the voters, I have the freedom to call it as I see it without worrying about retribution by the county board. Other department heads don't have that freedom. That is the beauty of an independently elected county auditor. Of all the elected positions in county government, the county auditor is truly the friend of the taxpayer.
4) Do you expect to be a regular at county board meetings to explain bills and spending, or will you be there only when requested?
Yes, I will attend county board and finance committee meetings. I believe it is my duty as an elected official to present my monthly reports in person and be available for questions. Additionally, as I said earlier, I plan on being a hands on elected official. I'll be digging into things such as the payments that don't follow policy report. I hope to have actual answers to questions, not just promises of "I'll check into that for you."
5) Are you making any promises about how much time you will spend in the office? Do you think it is necessary to be in the office 37 to 40 hours a week, or do you think you can do your work from home?
First, the only reason this question has to be asked is because the incumbent auditor and his political allies have allowed the practice of not showing up for work for months at a time to become the common practice. I will change this practice. I will not work from home. Quite honestly, as I've told voters as I'm campaigning, my wife works from an office in our home. When it gets to be about 7:30 a.m., she's kicking me out the door so that she can work. I believe that the auditor should be working a regular schedule as other county employees and elected officials do. During my time working for two elected officials in the county clerk's office, I have seen first-hand how an elected official should conduct themselves. No one can argue that Mark Shelden or Gordy Hulten didn't put in the appropriate time at work. I will be no different.
6) Having reviewed the office and its duties, do you expect to ask for a budget increase, a budget cut or a budget similar to the current one?
The auditor's budget is mainly employee salaries. I believe the staffing level to be appropriate for the duties and workload of the office. I do not anticipate any change to the budget, with the exception being the purchase and implementation of a new accounting system. This, however, would be a countywide expense that would impact the entire county budget and many departments. I expect that many of my goals can be accomplished within the current constraints of the auditor's budget.
7) Do you have a role model, in Illinois or elsewhere, for the way you would like to run your office?
I have several role models for running the Champaign County auditor's office. I believe the DuPage County auditor, Bob Grogan, has made his office the premier county auditor's office in Illinois. He is consistently recognized as one of the leaders in government transparency, and I hope to emulate him. I also believe Champaign County Treasurer Dan Welch should be someone I should use as an example. Dan started his career as a lower level employee in the treasurer's office and worked his way through the ranks to the elected treasurer position. In a roundabout way, I'm following his path. But what I like about Treasurer Welch is the way he works with other county officials to do the best he can for Champaign County's residents. He's truly a partner in improving county government. During the past five years' financial crisis, Treasurer Welch has always kept a calm head while going to the wall for county government. I want to do the same. Finally, I believe I have seen firsthand from Mark Shelden and Gordy Hulten how an elected official should run their office. Both have been fiscally responsible, open to employee suggestions, and active in the community in trying to promote the duties of their office. I hope that I can take lessons from all of these elected officials and make the Champaign County auditor's office one of the best in the state.
8) Do you think the auditor's office has been run well, or have there been significant flaws in its operation in recent years?
Honestly, the staff of the auditor's office has done a good job at filling the duties of the office without the leadership or management of an elected official, and they should be commended for their work. A lot of the credit should go to Carol Wadleigh, the former chief deputy auditor. Unfortunately for the taxpayers of Champaign County, Ms. Wadleigh took a well deserved retirement this past July (incidentally, the position remains unfilled despite the offers of assistance from county administration, and the office's ability to fulfill its duties has suffered). I believe the most significant flaw has been the incumbent auditor himself. That's a big reason why I'm running for this position. Because of how the incumbent has run this office, I really believe the auditor's office to be a blank canvas. There is so much that can be done with someone leading the office. We can improve the transparency of county government, making it easier to search for how tax dollars are spent. We can bring community members to the table and use the experts from throughout Champaign County to improve county government. We can hold elected officials to a higher standard. There is no person in county government who will work harder than me to make sure these goals are achieved and the duties of the office are fulfilled.