The ABCs of a county executive

Voters on Nov. 6 will be asked whether they want to create a county executive form of government for McHenry County.

While the executive is popularly elected, unlike the current system where the County Board’s 24 members elect a chairman after every November election, the executive position comes with a lot more authority than the chairmanship and would change the power structure of county government.

The following is a guide to a look at what a county executive is, what it isn’t, and the powers the seat holds.

Is this a referendum to allow us to directly elect the McHenry County Board chairman?

No. The referendum, if approved, would create a county executive, and voters would elect their first executive to a four-year term in 2014.

The executive, as the name suggests, is in charge of the day-to-day functions of county government, not unlike the current county administrator, who is appointed rather than elected. The executive also acts as an executive branch for the county board.

What does that mean?

The executive is not a member of the county board, and does not vote except to break ties. But like the governor, any legislation approved by the board has to be signed by the executive to take effect.

The executive also can veto legislation, which would require a three-fifths majority of board members to override. The McHenry County Board would need 15 of its 24 members to override an executive veto.

Legislation not signed by the executive automatically would take effect at the time of the next board meeting under the County Board’s current meeting schedule.

What powers does an executive have?

State law gives executives significant authority over county operations, most of which requires formal approval by the county board.

The authority includes preparing the county’s annual budget, appointing people to boards and commissions, hiring and firing department employees, entering intergovernmental agreements, negotiating with public and private entities to promote economic development, and redrawing county board district boundaries after each decennial U.S. Census.

Executives also can appoint independent legal counsel if they choose, but the county board sets the salary for the counsel, which cannot exceed that of the state’s attorney.

The executive’s power to hire and fire does not extend to the offices of other countywide elected offices, such as the state’s attorney, sheriff or county clerk.

What power does the county board have over the executive?

Besides voting to approve the executive’s initiatives, state law requires the executive to “perform such other duties as shall be required of him by the board.” In short, the executive is legally obligated to follow directives given by the board.

Would county government get home-rule power if the referendum passes?

No. This referendum does not grant the McHenry County Board home-rule authority that state law otherwise gives counties with an executive.

How much does the executive get paid?

That’s up to the board, but the state sets a minimum – the executive’s salary must be at least 1 1/2 times that of a board member.

Using board members’ $21,000 salaries for 2014 as a benchmark, the salary of the executive would have to be at least $32,000 a year.

The salary would very likely be much higher. By comparison, board Chairman Ken Koehler’s annual salary is $82,200. The executive in Will County now earns just under $100,000 a year.

What other Illinois counties have an executive?

Just Will County. Voters there approved the county executive form, without home rule, in 1988. Voters in Lake, Winnebago and Champaign counties have rejected the idea. Champaign County voters voted it down three times.

The executive form is far more common elsewhere. About 840 of the nation’s 3,000 counties have an executive form of government, according to the lobbying group County Executives of America.

But while Will County voters elect an executive, its county board, like ours, elects a board chairman from among its ranks to oversee the board.

How did this get on the McHenry County ballot?

The referendum was spearheaded by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, after unsuccessful efforts to have the McHenry County Board chairman popularly elected.

The number of signatures needed to put the question on the ballot is 2 percent of the county’s registered voters or 500 individuals, whichever is less.

What kind of efforts were made?

Some board members after the 2010 election wanted to put a referendum on the ballot that, if approved, would have had voters elect the board chairman. Supporters brought it up again during last year’s post-census redistricting, when the board could have done so by ordinance. Neither idea moved forward.

A proposal to put the referendum on the upcoming ballot to compete with the executive referendum was defeated by the County Board on a 16-3 vote. Not one board member, even those who support popular election of the chairman, has spoken in support of the Franks referendum.

Franks filed a bill in January in Springfield to force popular election of the McHenry and Lake county board chairmen, but state lawmakers crushed it on a 100-16 vote.

Can the executive position, once approved, be undone?

Voters can petition for a referendum to discontinue the county executive form of government. But a petition to discontinue requires more signatures than the 500 it took to get it on the McHenry County ballot.

A petition requires signatures equal to at least 5 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election. If we use the last presidential election as a benchmark, 5 percent of the 140,002 county residents who voted is 7,001 signatures.

A referendum to discontinue the executive form can be asked only once every four years.

What state law covers county executives?

The duties of the county executive are listed in 55 ILCS 5/2-5. You can read the statute online at http://www.ilga.gov.

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