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County executive referendum: No

A referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot asks McHenry County voters to fundamentally change how our county government works.

If the measure passes, the county would adopt an executive form of government, and in 2014 voters countywide would elect a county executive who would run the day-to-day operations of county government.

The county executive also would draft the county’s annual budget, make hiring and firing recommendations, and have veto power over County Board votes. That’s a lot more authority than the current County Board chairman has.

Under the current system, voters in each of six McHenry County districts elect four representatives to the County Board. Every two years, those 24 board members then select their County Board chairman. The County Board also appoints and supervises a professional county administrator who runs the day-to-day operations of the county.

Under Illinois law, the County Board chairman, under the current system, has some limited powers above other board members. The chairman sets the agenda for County Board meetings, runs the meetings, and assigns committee chairmanships with the consent of the full board. The chairman also serves as the board’s liaison to other local, regional and state governments, giving him more political muscle.

The best argument against the current system is that the chairman is not directly accountable to all of the voters in the county. Only about one-sixth of county voters, those who live in the chairman’s district, can pass judgment at the polls. A County Board chairman who continues to be elected by voters in his district and who has enough political clout with his fellow board members can continue on as chairman for many terms, without being directly elected to the post countywide. That’s the case with current County Board Chairman Ken Koehler of Crystal Lake. Chairman since 2004, he is completing his fourth term in the position and is expected to run for a fifth if he’s re-elected. (Earlier this week, the Northwest Herald’s Editorial Board recommended Koehler be re-elected to the board, but asked him to step down as chairman.)

Proponents of the executive form of government also argue that an elected executive who is accountable to all county voters wouldn’t be so quick to go along with property tax increases every year.

Up until this year, when it became a politically charged issue, the County Board voted to increase its tax levy for 21 straight years. While homeowners property values have declined significantly in recent years, their property tax bills have gone up a staggering 133 percent since 1991.

That’s unacceptable. But that’s a problem for the elected officials themselves and the voters who keep putting the same tax-and-spenders into office year in and year out. That’s not a problem of the system itself.

Proponents of the executive form of government also say that it will lead to better transparency, and that illegal meetings such as the one that occured during post-census redistricting last year couldn’t happen. We disagree, and think that there would be less transparency because of the executive’s expanded powers.

For example, under the current form, the county’s budgeting process takes place in committee meetings that are posted and open to the public. Under the executive form of government, the county executive drafts the budget and can do so behind close doors.

Opponents of the referendum argue that it unnecessarily creates another layer of government. The county executive would be able to hire his own staff, attorney, etc.

In the end, we recommend that voters vote “no” on the executive form of government.

We actually would prefer something more in the middle. If voters reject this referendum, we urge the County Board to place another referendum on the ballot asking voters if they’d prefer to elect the board chairman countywide, as is done in Kane and most other collar counties.

During interviews with our Editorial Board this month, most County Board candidates said they would vote to put such a referendum on the ballot if this one fails. If the county executive referendum does fail, we plan to hold them to that.

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