WOODSTOCK – Voters this November will not face competing referendums regarding how the McHenry County Board’s leader is chosen.
Board members at a Thursday special meeting crushed, on a 16-3 vote, a proposal to put a referendum on the ballot asking voters whether they want to popularly elect the board chairman. The idea was born quickly as a way to oppose a referendum spearheaded by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, to change to a county executive form of government.
Under an executive form, voters still elect their county board representatives by district, but also elect at-large a chief executive to a four-year term to run county government’s day-to-day operations.
The lopsided vote to not put a referendum to voters asking whether the board chairman should be popularly elected comes in the wake of board members’ interest in a leadership option they find more palatable than Franks’ referendum to fundamentally change how county government works.
Board members called the special meeting because Monday is the last day for governments to put a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Members such as Donna Kurtz and Nick Provenzano argued that board members should spend their energy opposing the Franks referendum. Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, supports popular election of the board chairman but said the board cannot risk that the “onerous” executive form of government would pass.
“We can’t afford to confuse the issue further with another [referendum] on the table,” Kurtz said. “We can’t do it at the expense of the county executive position having any chance of passing.”
Under the board’s current system, its 24 members elect the board chairman when the new board is seated after each general election. The idea of directly electing the board chairman was floated by supporters last year during the post-census redistricting process, but never advanced.
Franks, who has unsuccessfully tried to change state law to make the chairmanship popularly elected, has said the county “forced his hand.” He steadfastly has denied suspicions that the referendum is an attack aimed at deposing Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, who has held the chairmanship since 2004.
Except for Lake County, voters in all other collar counties directly elect their chairman, although Will County voters elect an executive. Will County is the only county in Illinois with an executive form of government.
A county executive wields significant power. The executive presides over board meetings and votes only to break ties, but has veto power over board legislation. The executive also is responsible for preparing the county budget, recommending appointments of department heads, and entering intergovernmental agreements.
State law allows governments to educate voters about ballot initiatives, but forbids them from taking positions on them. However, board members – most of whom are precinct committeemen and all of whom are up for election this year – individually have no such restrictions.
Organized opposition to the Franks referendum already has started online, with the anti-executive site www.nocountyczar.com. It links to several local bloggers who also oppose a county executive.
The County Board’s two Democratic members – Kathleen Bergan Schmidt and Paula Yensen – were among those who argued that two referendums will confuse voters. If both passed, state law would give precedence to the executive form.
“I believe having this referendum on the ballot, with the [executive] referendum certified yesterday, adds nothing but confusion to the whole issue” and that “flies in the face of common sense,” Bergan Schmidt said.
But Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry, said that the electorate should be trusted with the dueling decisions. All three who supported the county putting up its own referendum oppose Franks’ idea of a county executive.
“The voters are much more educated than the credit I have heard for them today,” Salgado said.
Virginia Peschke, R-Woodstock, who also voted for a county referendum, said she has long supported popular election of the board chairman. She twice dismissed as “naive” concerns aired by opponents that direct election will result in excessive outside influence and money, as if they are not presently a factor.
Speakers during public comment before the board’s debate also urged members not to put their referendum on the ballot.
State Rep. Mike Tryon, in a statement read by campaign manager Cheryl Meyer, not only opposed Franks’ initiative, but also told board members not to take “a reactionary vote driven by the political agenda of a known adversary of the McHenry County Board.” Tryon said he made his remarks as Koehler’s predecessor as board chairman, not as a state representative.
“Honorable board members, your system of county governance is not broken. To the contrary, McHenry County government is the envy of most other Illinois counties,” Tryon wrote.
In a separate vote, board members approved, 11-9, putting an advisory referendum on the ballot asking voters whether Illinois law should be changed to forbid elected officials from holding more than one office simultaneously.
The referendum, requested by Wonder Lake anti-township activist Bob Anderson, is modeled on a similar question going before voters in DuPage County, where two mayors running for their county board intend to hold both offices if elected.
How they voted
The McHenry County Board voted Thursday, 3-16, against putting a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot asking whether the board chairman should be directly elected by the voters.
Voting for such a referendum were Virginia Peschke, R-Woodstock, Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry, and Randy Donley, R-Union. Voting “no” were Anna May Miller, R-Cary, Marc Munaretto, R-Algonquin, Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, Kathleen Bergan Schmidt, D-Crystal Lake, Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, Scott Breeden, R-Lakewood, Mary Donner, R-Crystal Lake, Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard, John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, James Heisler, R-Crystal Lake, Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, John Jung, R-Woodstock, Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, and Chairman Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake.
Board members Bob Bless, R-Fox River Grove, Peter Merkel, R-McHenry, Robert Nowak, R-Cary, and Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, were absent. Member Sue Draffkorn, R-Wonder Lake, was present but missed the vote.
Board members voted, 11-9, in favor of an advisory referendum asking whether Illinois law should be changed to forbid elected officials from holding more than one office simultaneously.
Voting “yes” were Peschke, Salgado, Yensen, Donley, Draffkorn, Hammerand, Heisler, Hill, Jung, Kurtz and McCann. Voting “no” were Miller, Munaretto, Provenzano, Bergan Schmidt, Schuster, Breeden, Donner, Evertsen and Koehler.