PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — It’s over.
The legal saga by Peoria County Auditor Jessica Thomas came to a conclusion on Nov. 1 when she worked her last day as an elected official. Thomas, who had battled the county for more than a year, ran out of legal options in late September when the Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear her case after a lower court threw it out.
“Basically, it’s done,” she said. “My own comments were that this isn’t a win for anybody.”
Thomas was hoping the state’s highest court would listen to her arguments and reconsider a June ruling by the 4th District Appellate Court which said she Thomas lost any right she had to the office after a referendum last fall abolished it.
A trio of appellate court justices said Thomas had no “clearly ascertainable right to serve as county auditor because her ‘rights to the office ceased’ once the voters passed the referendum to eliminate the office.”
The state’s Supreme Court did issue a stay or a “time-out” on any action involving the county’s ongoing efforts to eliminate Thomas’ office while they mulled whether to take her case.
But on Sept. 27, 2023, a single line saying simply “Petition for Leave to Appeal Denied” meant she was done. And Thomas said she was given a notice of termination with her last day being on Nov. 1.
County Administrator Scott Sorrel said Peoria County reached out to Thomas within “hours” after they learned on Oct. 31 about the lack of action by the Illinois Supreme Court. That speedy delivery was on the advice of attorneys who were hired by Peoria County for this case, he said.
“She has through the end of this week to return technology issued to her and to remove any personal items in the office in the courthouse,” Sorrel said in an email.
In an another emailed statement, Sorrel praised the decision.
“The Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear Ms. Thomas’ appeal of the Appellate Court’s decision, which upheld the will of the voters,” he said. “The County of Peoria appreciates the Court respecting the outcome of the referendum that voters overwhelmingly approved in November of last year.”
However, Thomas said the matter was a “grave loss” for the taxpayers because the referendum in 2022 was poorly worded and confusing. Also, she said, it sets a dangerous precedent.
“It is saying you don’t have to be on the ballot to lose an election. if someone doesn’t like you, they can unelect you without having you on the ballot which is weird,” she said.
She also decried the amount the county spent fighting to remove her. Sorrell said that has so far totaled $191,249. That doesn’t include an attorney appointed by a judge who is to be paid for by the county to defend Thomas.
For years, county officials have wanted to get rid of the auditor’s office, saying it’s a product of a bygone era and can be done more efficiently by a financial department and computers.
Thomas, however, disagreed and says she’s an elected official, picked by voters, to act as a watchdog against graft and malfeasance.
Last November, Judge James A. Mack ruled Peoria County must continue funding the auditor’s office, despite an overwhelming vote during the Nov. 8 election to get rid of the office.
County officials had wanted to shut off the funding after the election results were official last year. Team Thomas disagreed and sought the injunction to keep the dollars flowing through the end of her term in 2024.
The county’s 2023 budget funded only Thomas’ salary and benefits. She has no other employees.
The 4th District also shot down an attempted by Thomas to nullify the election as she and a local community activist felt the way the ballots were prepared was not done by the rulebook. The appellate court in January said no, that local judges here in Peoria looked things over and made the proper rulings.
And while the cases are both finished, the legal tussling isn’t over. Left to be determined are:
- the issue of her paychecks. She’s been paid since the election and whether she has to repaid that money could come before a local judge.
- whether Justin Penn, her attorney, who was appointed as an attorney and who was to be paid by taxpayers after a judge determined State’s Attorney Jodi Hoos had a conflict being both, in theory, an advocate for the county and for Thomas, an elected official.
There was no word on when those issues would come back to Peoria County. Thomas did say she had not decided if possible federal appeal was something she wanted to do, noting she “was at peace with what has happened.”