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Cicero's boards are a family business

Two years ago, Richard Dominick recalls, he received a tempting offer from his brother, Cicero Town President Larry Dominick.

"We were just talking and he said, 'How would you like to sit on a town board, get full health insurance and make a thousand bucks a month?' " Richard Dominick said. "I told him, 'Do you think I'm nuts? Yeah, I'll take that.' "

A few weeks later, the window salesman with no experience in law enforcement was serving on the Cicero Board of Fire & Police Commissioners, receiving extra cash and full health benefits courtesy of taxpayers.

A Tribune investigation has revealed that 121 appointed board and commission members in Cicero are paid salaries -- at a cost to taxpayers of about $1 million annually -- and are offered health and dental insurance benefits for themselves and their families.

Though many towns pay their elected leaders and a few pay advisory panel members who serve exceedingly long hours, the distinction for Cicero is the size of the circle of compensation and the fact that it includes several relatives of Larry Dominick, who in his 2005 campaign promised to change the town's history of nepotism.

Cicero is a town of about 85,000 that once was the criminal headquarters of Al Capone but prefers to tout itself as the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway (in a part of Cicero that is now Oak Park). Former Town President Betty Loren-Maltese is in prison for her role in a scheme that bilked town coffers of more than $12 million, but she is revered by many senior citizens for programs that blossomed into free lunches, grass-cutting and even home repairs for the aged.

Cicero began paying board members in 1984, spokesman Elio Montenegro said, noting that they contribute many hours to the boards.

"For [Cicero], getting people in the community to participate may be a little more challenging than, say, a suburb on the North Shore," Montenegro said. "Cicero is a working-class neighborhood. The money and incentives help get residents involved in the community."

Richard Dominick is no longer involved. He transferred to the town's building board in December, he said, and was fired this spring for "asking too many questions."

His dismissal came a month after Larry Dominick was re-elected. Richard Dominick supported another candidate. "These boards are a joke," Richard Dominick said. "It's all about political payback. Have you ever heard of a town that gives board members that much money and health insurance? Some of these board members don't even live in town."

He said that during his tenure, he attended one meeting a month that typically ran about 30 minutes.

Montenegro said Richard Dominick has an ax to grind with his brother. The Tribune's calls seeking comment from Larry Dominick and the town's attorney were returned by spokesmen.

Records show several other Dominick family members served on Cicero town boards in 2009. Lillian Dominick, Larry Dominick's mother, serves on the Animal Welfare Board. Larry Dominick's son, Brian, and nephew, Wayne Wente, serve on the Housing and Real Estate Board. Carol Bernhard, Larry Dominick's first wife, serves on the Cultural Affairs/Historic Sites Commission and Ryan Chlada, son-in-law of Larry Dominick's second wife, sits on the Youth Commission and works as director of special events.

Larry Dominick's sister, Cindy Dembowski, served on the Animal Welfare Board in 2008 and now is deputy liquor commissioner.

Lillian Dominick declined to comment, as did Dembowski. Efforts to reach the others were unsuccessful.

A resolution unanimously approved at the May 26 town board meeting shows Cicero has 19 boards and commissions -- excluding the town's top board -- with 121 members. Those bodies include, among others, the Board of Health, Mental Health Board, Housing Board, Zoning Board, President's Office of Literacy, Graffiti Task Force and Roosevelt Road Advisory Committee.

Each member is paid $7,500 to $12,000 a year and is eligible for insurance benefits, Montenegro said.

Richard Dominick's tax form from Cicero shows he made $900 a month while serving on the Board of Fire & Police Commissioners. He said he also received health and dental insurance from Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

If each member of a board or commission is paid in that range for 12 months, salaries alone would amount to $907,500 to more than $1.4 million a year. Town officials would not disclose exact salaries, though the Tribune requested the information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Montenegro said the town also could not give figures on insurance costs, but a treasurer's report shows the total paid to Blue Cross and Blue Shield in 2007 on behalf of Cicero employees and board members was $8.16 million.

In most other local communities members of similar commissions are volunteers. Neighboring Berwyn has 12 advisory boards, but members of only two receive stipends. Each member of the Zoning Board of Appeals is paid $6,890 a year, City Clerk Thomas Pavlik said, and members of the Fire and Police Commission receive a yearly salary of $4,000. No one on advisory boards receives health insurance.

Naperville, Oak Park and Lombard pay elected leaders, but none of those municipalities pays their advisory commissioners or provides them with health-care benefits, officials said.

Some Cicero board members live outside the town, a potential violation of a requirement that officials reside in Cicero within a year of appointment.

Dembowski and her husband, Paul, who works as the town's superintendent of internal affairs, reside two hours south, in Flanagan, according to election records and Montenegro. State Board of Elections records show that Dembowski has donated $20,888 to her brother's campaign since 2005.

Wente resides in Elmhurst, town records show, and Richard Dominick said he has lived in Orland Park since 2001.

Failure to comply with the residency requirement can lead to dismissal, the ordinance states. But it allows the town president to waive the requirement to employ someone with technical training, knowledge or special expertise not available in Cicero.

Montenegro said he was unaware of the residency ordinance. And, he said, it matters little if Dominick family members serve on boards.

"Why not family members?" Montenegro said. "They can contribute [to boards] just like anybody else."

Better Government Association Executive Director Andy Shaw said, "It ... sounds like Cicero has taken this to the extreme like it does virtually every other form of bad government.

"This is a trough for the [Larry] Dominick herd, and they seem to be eating and drinking heartily," Shaw said. "Taxpayers cannot afford this kind of waste. Every one of those boards has to be scrutinized and justified publicly and openly as to its need for the residents of Cicero."

Ted Gregory is a Tribune reporter; Joseph Ruzich a freelance reporter. tgregory@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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