At Oak Park Village Hall, an investigation will soon begin into local government spending practices. When finished, the village may dump the $1.6 million software program at the center of the controversy.

It’s too early to say if Village Manager Tom Barwin and Chief Financial Officer Craig Lesner will be reprimanded for allowing a consulting contract to almost quadruple from $75,000 to $279,000. Rather than going to the village board for approval, the overage was paid in a series of checks under $25,000. Any amount $25,000 and over must go before the board for approval.

Trustee Greg Marsey says that decision will come after an outside investigation of village hall.

To investigate the village’s agreement with JCG Corp., the village board was scheduled to approve a $5,000 contract with R.E. Walsh & Associates of Oak Brook on Tuesday night, several hours after press time.

Trustee Ray Johnson is leading a subcommittee of the village board, which will oversee the investigation process. It also includes trustees Jan Pate, Jon Hale and Greg Marsey. To keep the process free of partisanship, all are members who are not running for re-election in April.

Johnson said they picked R.E. Walsh because the company has done other work with the village. In 2006, they investigated the federally funded single-family rehab program; Walsh’s findings resulted in a $281,000 fine for the village.

This investigation is expected to take about 4-6 weeks. Johnson said he hopes the process goes quickly and that the board remains as transparent as possible.

“Obviously, we’re dealing with personnel issues, and we need to protect the rights of the employees and ensure that we proceed in a non-accusatory manner,” he said.

“None of us felt like we had the whole story,” Marsey said. “We needed to investigate the matter to make sure we had all the facts and give everyone a chance to weigh in with their side of the story.”

An outside investigator will determine if Barwin and Lesner acted improperly while paying the JCG Corp., which is run by Jennifer Grochowski, who is in a book club with Lesner’s wife. She incorporated her business four days before receiving a contract with the village, for which Oak Park did not seek competitive bids.

Lesner declined to comment last week until after the investigation. In a public meeting last week, he claimed to have disclosed his relationship with Grochowski from the start. He also alleged that the consulting work was budgeted in 2008, despite trustees cutting a $180,000 line item out of the budget for a PeopleSoft consultant.

Oak Park may abandon software

The village acquired PeopleSoft, an accounting and human resources software program, in 2003. To date, Oak Park has spent more than $1.6 million to purchase and implement the program, which is typically used by large universities, Fortune 500 companies and governments on the scale of New York City.

Oak Park has reported trouble – as recently as last week – in using PeopleSoft. In an e-mail to the village board last Friday, Barwin said the village’s accounting system was down all day Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday morning. In the e-mail, Barwin said the system tends to shut down occasionally, but when it’s off for two days or more, it creates “serious problems.”

With PeopleSoft down, workers could not log which parking tickets were paid, and all booting of cars ceased. In the e-mail, Barwin recommended hiring a San Francisco-based firm to help troubleshoot at a cost of $180 an hour.

Barwin said that when he first came to Oak Park in 2006, the village had serious problems with its accounting practices. In some cases, outside companies were issued checks twice for work.

At a meeting last week, village staff recommended phasing out PeopleSoft and moving to a “mid-tier” software program, which would cost an estimated $850,000 over the next 10 years.

Village staff is drafting a request for proposals to seek a new accounting software program. Oak Park won’t choose one, though, until after the investigation is complete. In addition to tighter procurement procedures and more board oversight, Marsey would like to see the PeopleSoft issue addressed quickly.

“This whole brouhaha will come and go, but the lingering problem will stay that we have a finance department that doesn’t have accurate accounting of our expenses and revenues,” he said.

The village board approved a contract with JCG Corp. in July 2007 for $75,000 to help close “gaps” in the software. At the time, village officials said PeopleSoft was performing at around 20 percent capacity, and today it’s reportedly at roughly 60 percent.

Barwin declined to comment on the specifics of when and how the consultant was paid for her work. He said he doesn’t sign checks, that his signature is stamped on them using a machine in accounts payable.

Village Attorney Ray Heise told Wednesday Journal in a phone interview that he advised Barwin against paying JCG in increments of $25,000 or less. He said that it’s against village code for staff to authorize a contract over that amount, and so is entering a service contract without seeking at least three informal written bids.

A Freedom of Information Act request to the village produced 26 checks written to JCG Corp. from Aug. 17, 2007 to Sept. 19, 2008. Amounts of the checks ranged from $9,375 to $20,250. According to village documents, Grochowski started work on July 9, 2007. That was three weeks before the board OK’d a contract with her and more than two weeks before JCG was incorporated.

Invoices from JCG provided by the village are sparse on information, listing hours, dates, and amounts to be paid. Contrary to the contract approved by the board in July 2007, they provide no detail about the scope of work Grochowski did, while often logging in more than 10 hours a day. She tallied 2,239 hours over the course of about a year, an average of more than 40 hours per week.

A phone call to Grochowski’s home in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago was not returned by press time.

Why the board waited so long

The board first learned of the overspending in August from an anonymous tip. In a memo to the board at the time, Barwin claimed that he misinterpreted his spending authority by breaking a larger project up into smaller payments. He claimed, in the memo, that there was a sense of desperation among village staff to not let a $1.6-million purchase go to waste.

Board members on the committee say they wanted to wait until after the 2009 budget process to address the issue. Johnson hadn’t heard some details of the matter – such as Grochowski’s connection with Lesner and her company’s incorporation date – until they were revealed in a Jan. 9 Web story by Pioneer Press.

“What Tom presented in August raised concerns but not at the same heightened level of seriousness,” Johnson said.

Johnson declined to elaborate on specifics of the investigation, but did say they will try to find whether the $204,000 was budgeted before it was spent.

“Until then, I hope the public will sit back and understand that we need to get the facts straight before we do anything,” Pate said.

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