Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said there was “no wrongdoing” with the phone calls he exchanged with Ward 4 candidate Alex McHugh before Eckert and two other members of the city’s Election Board ruled that McHugh could stay on the April 7 ballot.
But Alderman Joe Hayden said the phone calls, including calls on the day of the Jan. 5 Election Board hearing, suggest a conflict of interest for Eckert.
City phone records show there were more than 30 calls placed between McHugh’s cellphone and Eckert’s city-issued cellphone. Eckert said some of the calls were not actual conversations because calls were placed but not answered.
Eckert said McHugh was asking questions about the election process. “There were some legitimate questions. I forwarded some of it to the city attorney,” Eckert told the City Council on March 16. “I can tell you there was no wrongdoing on our behalf.”
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McHugh said the calls were about personal matters. McHugh said Eckert helped him cope with the “hardest period of my life” following the death of his mother, Mary McHugh, a longtime teacher and community leader in Belleville who died in 2014.
Eckert said the call shortly before the Election Board hearing was placed by McHugh who wanted to know in which room the hearing was going to be held. Eckert said McHugh talked to him after the hearing because he was upset that personal family financial information was part of the evidence in the hearing.
“I make no excuse for the friendship I had since 1970 with Mary McHugh,” Eckert said. “His mother was like a second mother to me.”
Eckert said he placed some of the calls to McHugh because he was trying to reach one of McHugh’s sisters.
“The mayor needs to answer to the public,” Hayden said. “It’s an extreme amount of phone calls and he alluded that they were obviously talking about the election or he wouldn’t have mentioned that some of them would be referred to the city attorney.”
City Attorney Garrett Hoerner declined to comment about the calls forwarded to him, citing the confidentiality of an attorney-client relationship, with the city being the client.
Hayden said, “If you’re going to serve on an electoral board” you can’t put yourself “in a conflict of interest.”
“Once you’ve been that close to the situation, I don’t know how you could go into the proceeding with an unbiased” view, Hayden said.
Rick Brown, a Shiloh resident who owns rental property in Belleville and previously owned a business in the city, gave City Council members an affidavit on March 16 listing reasons why McHugh shouldn’t be on the ballot. One of the reasons included the series of phone calls between Eckert and McHugh.
Brown first obtained the phone records through a Freedom of Information Act request filed with the city.
Brown believes Eckert should have recused himself from the Election Board hearing involving McHugh.
Eckert said state law only requires a member of the Election Board to recuse himself when his own candidacy is being challenged, so he didn’t see the need to step down.
Hayden has asked that the City Council discuss this matter but it has not yet been placed on an agenda for an upcoming council meeting. The election is next Tuesday.
“We’ve got to come clean to the public with what’s going on here because there’s questions as it relates to the legitimacy of candidates in the Ward 4 race,” Hayden said.