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Fear and Loathing on the County Executive Trail '12

Why mess with the perfection that is county government?

As readers know, McHenry County Board members have gotten into quite a lather over the Jack Franks referendum seeking to change to a county executive form of government.

I'm not going to get into the merits and/or demerits of fundamentally changing how county government is led.

But it's been interesting watching county government's reaction to proposed change – they don't like it, and that's not a new development. During the redistricting process last year, a majority steadfastly refused to entertain requests to shrink its size (24 is a lucky number), popularly elect the board chairman (we can't let money and special interests infect us), or set term limits on the chairmanship.

I won't challenge the board's philosophy of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," but I'll point out, because I'm a wiseguy, this same county board spent time, money and resources trying to fix residential electric bills that the voters resoundingly said weren't broken, either.

Board members last week wrestled with the executive referendum at a special meeting in which they decided against a competing referendum of their own. Without further ado, let's look at some of the debate that swirled at Thursday's special meeting, but ended up on the cutting room floor.

Actually, I'll start with the comment that was made at last night's board meeting ...

• PUT ON YOUR SUNDAY BEST: Republican County Board candidate Michael Walkup told board members that enacting reform measures on their own might dissuade people from voting for a county executive.

He had implored board members to put their own competing referendum on the ballot to popularly elect the chairman – an issue Walkup has campaigned on – but board members soundly rejected the idea.

"How about show the voters you're really serious about reform? It might help. It can't hurt," Walkup said.

Some he aimed at the board chairmanship, which has been held since 2004 by Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake.

Walkup said Koehler should announce he will no longer seek the office. He also stated the board should impose term limits on the office, reduce its salary (now about $82,200) and remove the chairman's ability to recommend committee chairmanships – for the record, however, the County Board has the ultimate say.

Walkup also recommended:

• Not raising taxes – the County Board intends not to raise them for next year's property tax bills, but freezing them again next year when all 24 seats aren't up for election would of course be more sincere.

• Holding the line on board members' salaries and benefits.

• Not lobbying against the Illinois Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts. Walkup was referring to my stories over the past year showing that McHenry and other large counties are paying lobbyists with taxpayer money to curtail our open government laws and fight laws strengthening them. My most recent blog post – gloating because the lobbyist failed – can be found here.

"If you do this, it may give you a chance to avoid the Armageddon of the county executive form of government," Walkup said.

• TWO POINTS FOR PESCHKE: If you listen to opponents of allowing for voters to elect the chairman, they have unceasingly aired worries that the money needed to get elected would introduce undue influence into county politics.

One example of many was a statement made by former board chairman (now state representative) Mike Tryon. In a prepared statement read at last Thursday's meeting, Tryon warned that, "Voting to change ... to an at-large voted chairman would create a large county political figurehead, and bigger government, which can lead to influence peddling, deal making and political leveraging."

Nope, that doesn't happen in McHenry County government right now. No deals, no influence peddling or leveraging. Absolutely not. Heck, no.

So thanks goes out to board member Virginia Peschke, R-Woodstock, who twice in her remarks called such thinking "naïve."

• THE MOORE THE MERRIER: Grafton Township Supervisor Linda Moore's argument against popular election of the board chairman was the most unique.

Namely, that the ungodly mess that is Grafton Township government could be duplicated at the county level.

As readers know, Moore and the township's four trustees have been at each other's throats since her 2009 election on the platform that the township doesn't need a new $3.5 million town hall. The legal cannonades have been flying back and forth for four years, using township tax money as the ammunition.

(In the name of full disclosure, I live in Grafton Township and I have undoubtedly donated some of the green musket wadding with Benjamin Franklin and Ulysses S. Grant's pictures on them.)

Moore said that "many municipalities are having similar experiences", but she did not cite any specific ones.

"If the County Board elects its chairman at large, in a fashion similar to township and municipal government, there is a very real chance you may find this board in a similar situation and state of dysfunction as we are experiencing in area municipalities and in Grafton Township," Moore said.

Realistic or not, have fun trying to sleep tonight picturing that scenario. Talk about graduating from Hatfields vs. McCoys to U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.

• I CALL NO TAKEBACKS: If voters approve the referendum in November, the first executive election would follow in 2014.

Given how downright silly McHenry County politics can get, a situation in which voters elect an executive and vote on a referendum to discontinue the executive is not out of the question.

Replying to a question posed by John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, county legal counsel Jana Blake explained that there is a mechanism by which voters can repeal the executive form of government.

The signature requirements under state law are steeper than the 500 that Franks needed to get the executive referendum on the ballot. A referendum to discontinue the executive form of government needs at least 5 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election.

We'll get that exact number sometime after Nov. 6, but if we use the 2008 presidential election as a benchmark, 5 percent of the 140,002 county residents who County Clerk Katherine Schultz said cast ballots is 7,001 signatures.

State law limits attempts to discontinue the executive form to once every four years, so if it fails in November 2014, it will not be until November 2018 that opponents can try again.

A November 2014 ballot in which candidates spend thousands of dollars to run for an office that voters may decide that same election to do without? Ay, chihuahua.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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