August 18th, the Knox County Board voted 21-2 to fire Supervisor Of Assessments Doug Rossio. Bruce Weik moved that Rossio ''be dismissed for acts of misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfeasance in the performance of the duties of his office'' and publicly disclosed for the first time a list of seven general charges. Chairman Lomac Payton and Christine Eik Winick voted ''no;'' Dale Parsons passed; the remaining board members all voted to fire Rossio immediately.
Rossio was appointed to the state specified four-year term in 1997. His experience with Knox County was rocky from the very beginning. He was indisputably very different from his predecessor, Gil Heil, and his actions put off county officials in the courthouse, township assessors throughout the county and even some county board members by the changes he began implementing.
No person was more unhappy with Rossio's hiring than City of Galesburg Township Assessor Darrell Lovell. Lovell is responsible for over 60 percent of the assessed parcels in Knox County and is generally well-respected locally and statewide. Lovell had not sought this position himself, largely because the county job would have meant a cut in both pay and benefits. Lovell's dissatisfaction with Rossio stems not only from numerous disagreements between the two men but also to Knox County not hiring his colleague and close friend Joyce Skinner, a multi-township assessor who had also applied for the supervisor's position. These two men have been on a collision course from day one and Lovell has championed the effort to fire Rossio.
The situation came to a head when Rossio fired Darlyn Peterson, a clerk in his office. Peterson saw an opportunity to take advantage of Rossio's rocky relationship with local officials and actively began stirring the political waters with repeated telephone calls to any official who would listen. She made public statements charging that her dismissal was retaliatory in nature. The politically-astute Lovell saw his opportunity and jumped into the fray with a petition, signed by all but one of Knox County's township assessors, criticizing both Rossio's performance and his relationship with them.
Loud calls that Rossio resign or be fired followed quickly.
Given the strict statutory limits governing the dismissal of supervisors of assessment, county officials understood that Rossio could not be fired because he ''didn't work and play well with others'' and legally acceptable reasons had to be discovered or created to accomplish the goal.
This public spectacle continued for over a month before Payton presented the issue before the July 21st county board meeting. Payton appointed a three-member investigative committee composed of Weik, Matt Potts and Linda Roberts-- each having assured Payton that they had an open mind regarding Rossio and could investigate the issues without preconceived notions of its outcome.
The truth of that assumption came into question that very night when a motion demanding Rossio's immediate resignation was made by a board member. All three of the supposedly unbiased investigative committee members voted with the overwhelming majority to demand Rossio's resignation within the next two days. Only an embarrassed Payton dissented from this measure. Rossio did not comply.
Weik and his committee held a series of closed-door hearings with dozens of witnesses regarding the performance of Doug Rossio. These hearings were presided over by Weik and neither Rossio nor his attorney were allowed to attend. Even the charges being raised were kept secret. Rossio, with his attorney and a supporting witness, testified last. Other than some leaks from witnesses antagonistic to Rossio, the allegations and his responses had been secret-- until the County Board voted to fire him.
Doug Rossio now thinks it's in his best interest to make public his side of the story.
The first charge covered Peterson's dismissal. ''I haven't spoken about this before because I think it is inappropriate to talk about personnel actions in the media or before the public,'' explains Rossio. ''So I haven't been able to defend myself. I instituted a formal employee performance review program after my appointment. State's Attorney Paul Mangieri told me at the time that mine was the only office in the county that does this. The decision to fire her was based on more than one event in her employment history. Not surprisingly, Ms. Peterson has chosen not to disclose all the performance areas that are itemized in her personnel file. Before she was dismissed I reviewed her personnel file with [Mangieri] and he concurred with my decision.''
With respect to Peterson's charges of inappropriate behavior by Rossio in granting a property tax exemption where it was not warranted, he is blunt in his own defense. ''Not only was no exemption granted, the exemption was requested by Joann Johnson, the township assessor for the township where the woman lives. The information Joann Johnson provided to my office appeared to meet all the qualifications for the exemption. I believed the information provided to be accurate as she is legally responsible for such data and I concurred with her recommendation. It wasn't until a Board Of Review member said he had been made aware that the exemption was improper that I suspected there might be a problem. When [Peterson] said she came to me with information that the exemption was improper she lied.''
One of the more serious charges that reportedly carried much weight with the County Board members was that Rossio had failed to complete the state-mandated quadrennial reassessment of all Knox County parcels by the June 1st deadline. This process has not yet been completed but Rossio contends that the statutory responsibility rests with the township assessors and not his office.
''The quadrennial reassessment is not my job to complete. State law specifically outlines the duties of my former office. The Supervisor of Assessments files and maintains, publishes and mails the assessments done by the township assessors, we are not directly responsible for completing property assessments. The township assessors are required by statute to complete the quadrennial reassessment by the deadline and their failure to do that is a class B misdemeanor.''
Another serious charge against Rossio concerned his ''engaging in private employment and doing private appraisals. ''I have occasionally assisted other township assessors located in counties far outside of Knox County and have done a few private appraisals again outside of Knox County,'' explained Rossio. ''But this seems to be a very common practice across Illinois and the work was always done on my own time. Additionally, I serve as an instructor for assessors, a position I held before Knox County hired me, and one that I disclosed during my interviews. This is work that not only speaks highly of my professional qualifications but also reflects well on Knox County. While the preparation work and study is demanding it also kept me abreast of changes in the assessment field and did not adversely affect my work for Knox County. In each of the two years that I have been employed in Knox County, this teaching has caused me to miss no more than four work days annually and my total absences were less than the equivalent of two work weeks each year.''
In an interesting case of piggy-backing with an unrelated controversy, Rossio was also charged with failing to properly assess the Highlands mega-hog farm owned by Jim and Doug Baird outside of Williamsfield. Once again, this issue concerns who is legally responsible for assessing properties in Knox County. Rossio says state statutes place this duty with the appropriate township assessor.
''In December of 1997, Elba township assessor Everett Skinner was shown drawings indicating the final layout of the farm even though not all of that work had been completed at the time. With this information Everett erroneously assessed the property for the full value of buildings that were not completed. The Baird's appealed to my office and requested a meeting with Everett and myself. Following this meeting Everett agreed to recommend a reduction of the property's assessment to account for only those improvements in use as of January 1,1998.''
''Some of those buildings were completed in early 1998 and my critics have contended that this hog confinement should have immediately been reassessed upon completion of those buildings. But, there is no precedent for that in Knox County or any other Illinois county. According to statute, mid-year property improvements cannot be reflected in the assessment until the following January. This issue really has nothing to do with my role as Supervisor of Assessments-- accurate assessments are the responsibility of each township assessor.''
The fourth charge against Rossio dealt with a variety of charges of personal misconduct. This is where allegations of playing computer games on county time, bringing his children to work and failure to maintain the county's standard 8:30am to 4:30pm office hours. On the last point there is no question that Rossio seldom arrived before 9:30am and sometimes later. Knox County does not require its salaried employees to punch a time clock. In this case, Rossio had obtained approval at the time of his hiring to arrive late to work because he reads to children at his youngest son's day care center. Former County Board Chairman Jim Baird, who hired Rossio, confirmed that when questioned by Weik's committee.
Beyond his late start times, Rossio was also charged with ''taking excessively long lunches.'' His response: ''I typically do not take lunches or breaks and to relax I have on occasion taken a few minutes at a time to play a computer game such as solitaire or mine sweeper. This has only occurred during particularly hectic periods of the year and the total amount of time devoted to such games never exceeded 60 minutes per week.''
''I have three sons, one of which is young and in day care; two are now in school,'' continued Rossio. ''During my first year at Knox County I brought my oldest son into work two or three days during his summer vacation and this past year each of my older sons have individually come to work with me a total of maybe four days this summer. My children are very courteous and well behaved and never created any problems in the workplace. They generally kept out of public view, coloring or drawing and sometimes would carry papers to people in the office at my request. I never brought my boys to work on days that were busy or where events were scheduled and I was under the impression that occasionally bringing one's children to work was an encouraged practice these days.''
Following the hearing process, the special investigative committee was ready to present its findings. By the time this committee made their recommendation to the County's Executive Committee and eventually to the closed session of the entire board they had already privately acknowledged among themselves that most of these charges were without merit. The recommendation they made was that Rossio be disciplined in some manner but that his firing was not justified. The executive committee agreed with this assessment.
By the time the presentation was made to the full County Board, many members were beyond the point of reason and emotionally insisted that Rossio be fired. Weik says he counted votes and knew Rossio would be terminated no matter what the investigative committee recommended. Even though the justification may not be there under the law, Board members were swayed by Mangieri who, while providing them case law where County Boards which had fired Supervisors of Assessments were later forced to rehire them, also assured Board Members that their liability was most likely limited to his back pay if Rossio should win on appeal. The expense apparently seemed reasonable to end this nightmare.
In the end, all but two members of the executive committee and all three members of the investigative committee flip-flopped and voted to fire Rossio.
Rossio is entitled to an automatic appeal before the full board and has asked for one. His next step to vindicate himself is in the courts. Don't expect you've heard the last of Doug Rossio.
Lovell minced no words in describing Rossio's professional competence: ''Doug Rossio puts on a good show but he's really dumb. In my experience he doesn't fully understand the assessor's job nor did he appear to work very hard at it either.'' Lovell went on to cite anecdotal instances where he says Rossio demonstrated a lack of understanding of the basic issues that assessors deal with on a day-by-day basis.
Joyce Skinner is responsible for the assessments of a number of area townships surrounding Galesburg. ''[Rossio] never carried through with any requests we assessors made of him and he did little to ensure that each township assessor was carrying out his or her duties uniformly. In my view a major role of his office is to assist township assessors, particularly the part-time assessors, but Doug just made our jobs harder. When you needed to speak with him he was seldom available even when he was in the office.''
''One place where Doug is clearly not doing his job is when it comes to insuring uniformity in assessments across the county,'' piped in assessor Joann Johnson. ''At the minimum he should meet regularly with the township assessors to make sure we are all following the same procedures in assessing property. At least once per year we should meet and develop some sort of consensus of the standard procedures to be maintained county-wide. Once this is done Doug should be available for our consultation whenever one of us is confused or stumped but again he couldn't be bothered to help us out.''
One allegation that led to Rossio's dismissal was that he tried to grant a property owner four property tax exemptions to which she was not entitled. All four of the exemptions were part of the Homestead Exemption program and require an applicant to own and occupy the property. There is no dispute that the property in question was sold by a mother to her daughter on April 12, 1993 or that the mother continues to reside in the home and the current owner doesn't even live in Knox County.
Johnson, the township assessor responsible for this parcel, characterized Rossio's explanation as ''just plain lies.'' His position is that Johnson came to him with the exemption request and documentation and that he took her word that it was legitimate. ''I did not present any information to Doug Rossio asking that he grant any exemptions for this property,'' explained Johnson. ''I spoke to the mother who is concerned that her daughter's property taxes are too high. After looking at the home I agreed that we could lower its assessed value but, since her request came after the 30-day period for appeals, the new lower value would need to wait for the following tax year. I said I would file a certificate of error asking the Property Tax Board of Review to reconsider that year's taxes but the request was unlikely to be approved.''
The Board did not approve the certificate of error but the mother continued to push for relief. Johnson continued: ''I never mentioned any exemptions to either the woman or [Rossio] initially. Later I received a telephone call from Chris Gray [then deputy, now acting Supervisor of Assessments] who told me that Doug had determined that the property qualified for the tax exemptions and that I should come and pick up the necessary papers to have them signed. I told Chris that this lady did not qualify for the exemptions and she only said that Doug okayed them. I had the forms signed and returned them to Doug but I said again that this lady did not qualify.''
Gray confirms the gist of Johnson's story. ''Doug said she could have the exemptions and as his employee I didn't question it even though Joann clearly did so herself at the time. In this case, as in others where Doug requested me to do things I would not have done myself, I clearly marked the related forms 'per Doug Rossio' for my own protection if anything would happen in the future. For some reason all paperwork with such notations is now missing from the Supervisor of Assessments office.''
The firing of Darlyn Peterson for her alleged insubordination was precipitated by her decision to warn members of the Board of Appeals of the allegedly inappropriate exemptions and to call officials in Springfield to complain about Rossio's actions. The processing of such exemption requests was one of Peterson's regular duties and she claims that this was not the only time Rossio granted questionable exemptions.
Another of the serious charges against Rossio concerns his responsibility for Knox County being behind in completing the 1999 Quadrennial Reassessment. The state requires every county to do a thorough reassessment of every parcel every four years. The statute reads: ''On or before June 1 [each township] assessor shall actually view and determine the value of each property listed for taxation.'' As of today the quadrennial reassessment is not yet completed in Knox County. The township assessors blame Rossio and the Knox County Board apparently concurred by listing this as a reason for his dismissal.
Rossio's lawyer, Jeff DeJoode, retorts: ''Someone has misled the County Board and tried to make it look as though Doug is responsible for the quadrennial reassessment. The statute clearly indicates city and township assessors in Knox County are responsible for completing their assessment books by June 1.''
The assessors point out a subtle distinction that is important in determining who is to blame. Lovell and Skinner agree it is their job to assess but it is Rossio's job to maintain those records. ''I had my assessments done before June 1st,'' asserts Lovell, ''but Doug's computer system wasn't ready to take my data before mid-March and that didn't leave my staff sufficient time to get everything entered.''
Skinner added, ''My reassessments were done by December 6, 1998 but the computers in Doug's office were not ready for my use before May 1, 1999. Doug sat on his hands for months rather than do his part to prepare the system for our entry of the quadrennial reassessment data. This was the first time township assessors were expected to enter their own data into the computer system and many of us are simply inexperienced in this which led to further delays. Gil Heil always had his staff do the data entry but Doug insisted it wasn't the responsibility of his office staff.''
According to his critics, Rossio's predecessor (Gil Heil) always had always completed the task of entering the required data tables so the system would ready for entering new figures by November of the year proceeding the quadrennial year.
''I talked multiple times with Doug starting in June, 1998 about these updates for the computers and how important it was that this be done by November if I was to complete my quadrennial by June 1st,'' explained Lovell. ''Gil always had the work done but Doug just said, 'No big deal, I'll take care of it.' He didn't. By early February, Joyce Skinner, my deputy assessor, Laura Williams, and myself met with Doug but he still had no solution for the problem. Eventually, at my suggestion, Doug contacted Ron Findley (Supervisor of Assessments in Christian County) for help and sent a staff member down there to get Findley's help in entering the data.''
Both Skinner and Johnson contend that Rossio's policy of township assessors entering their own data was not practiced uniformly. While Lovell's office is fully computerized and has long entered its own data, this was the first time that the female township assessors had to do the entry themselves. ''Only we women had to enter this data ourselves,'' complained Johnson. ''When the men objected, Doug had his staff do their entry but not ours.''
The next step in Rossio controversy is a formal hearing before the County Board that will be held September 22nd. A majority must either uphold or reverse the firing, unlike the two-thirds it took to fire him. If Rossio's termination is upheld, DeJoode says he will sue Knox County to get back his job and ''his professional dignity.''