Lyons: Referendum at least worthy of discussion

Maybe it’s a contrarian nature, occupational skepticism or an aversion to conventional wisdom, but I get a bit itchy when nearly everyone nods in agreement that something’s a terrible idea or a great idea.

That’s been my knee-jerk reaction to the McHenry County Board consensus that state Rep. Jack Franks’ referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot to change McHenry County to an executive form of government is a terrible idea.

It might well be a bad idea, but I’m keeping an open mind for a few more weeks. Most of the arguments against an executive form of government focus on two major points: 1) The executive is far too powerful in comparison with the remainder of the County Board, and 2) Day-to-day government functions should be administered by a qualified professional as opposed to an elected official.

While the first point is true, other governmental units in our lives have powerful executives, such as a governor or president, and legislators who, while powerful as a group, are less powerful individually. That’s been around for more than a couple of hundred years and seems to work out mostly OK, except when it doesn’t.

The second point is valid, too. An entity the size of McHenry County has hundreds of employees who are responsible for vital tasks, ranging from police protection to making sure we have adequate transportation.

Most do important work that has nothing to do with politics, and deserve better than to serve at the whim of some political overlord. However, the majority of those employees also serve at the behest of a department head who is an elected official who does serve at the whim of voters.

Another issue that might weigh in an administrative professional’s favor is that McHenry County operates with a $250 million budget, and placing some guy whose biggest accomplishment is as a big back-slapper in the service organization crowd might not be the best way to manage it. That approach also could lead to patronage, turning county departments into homes for political cronies.

Those are things to consider, but as I listened to repeated responses, I considered something else based on observing the machinations of local government for two decades.

What I’ve learned is that it’s usually more the professional administrator, whether the sign on the door says “county administrator,” “city manager” or “superintendent,” who has the real power in a local unit of government.

Although those individuals can be fired by an elected body, as long as they strike the right tone with the elected officials, make the trains run on time, and keep them out of deficits, they pretty much run the show.

Personalities aside, what an administrator wants to do is similar to what an executive in private industry wants to do: grow the business, make sure people get decent salaries, and stay employed.

They have less accountability to voters. That somewhat explains why some public employees take a different attitude than residents might expect. They view an administrator as their boss – not taxpayers and certainly not voters.

In fact, the better an administrator is at the job, the more likely voters are to fall asleep at municipal election time as long as the snow gets plowed. The only time you hear from voters is when a heftier property tax bill arrives, Besides the fact that less than 20 percent even bother to vote, many uneducated residents aren’t even sure at whom they should be mad.

All I’m saying is that there is more to this and a mere dismissal of the entire concept might be a wasted opportunity for some interesting discussion.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at

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