CRYSTAL LAKE – Two state representatives who normally work very well together were at loggerheads at a Wednesday night forum over a referendum to change McHenry County government to an executive form.
To Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks, who spearheaded the referendum, an executive form would mean an end to county government tax increases and greater transparency and accountability. To Republican state Rep. Mike Tryon, who had served as McHenry County Board chairman before his 2004 election to Springfield, an executive would be a disaster that would increase government spending and foster an environment ripe for corruption.
More than 180 people attended the forum, hosted by Patriots United at McHenry County College, to learn more about the Nov. 6 referendum. Under an executive form, voters directly elect an executive to run the day-to-day operations of county government. An executive under state law has wider-ranging powers than a county board chairman, such as veto power over board legislation, drafting the county budget and hiring and firing staff, all with the approval of the board.
Franks said that creating an executive branch will empower voters to elect the County Board’s highest figure – under the current system, the 24-member board elects a chairman from among themselves following each November election. The new system, he said, would stop county government tax increases by making the person responsible for developing the budget directly accountable to voters.
“Evolving to the county executive form of government is the only way to stop the ever-increasing property taxes that our County Board levies,” Franks said.
Tryon countered that a county executive likely would increase the cost of government through the hiring of his or her own staff, including legal counsel, another power granted the executive under state law. He said that the executive could create a “Boss Hogg”-type political system in McHenry County, and said a crook along the lines of a George Ryan or Rod Blagojevich would be a possibility. Tryon presented scenarios in which an executive could grant no-bid contracts up to $25,000 or approve or veto zoning requests to curry favor.
“These are real powers in one person’s hands, and it’s not right for McHenry County,” Tryon said.
The referendum, if approved, would not grant McHenry County government home-rule power that state law otherwise grants county governments with an executive.
When asked by the forum’s moderators, Franks said he would not seek the office of executive if voters approve it.
Franks on multiple occasions took aim at current County Board Chairman Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, whom Franks repeatedly has accused of abusing his power. Tryon told the audience that the chairmanship has no real power, and that the power is in the process and the full County Board. Koehler, who attended the forum but did not participate, has held the chairmanship since Tryon was elected to the General Assembly, and has said he may seek a fifth two-year term.
Koehler has alleged that the referendum is nothing more than an extreme act of political vengeance on Franks’ part, while Franks alleges that the county “good old boys” system is marshaling its resources to swat down a legitimate reform initiative.
McHenry and Lake counties are the two collar counties in which the board chairman is chosen by the elected members and not the public. Board chairmen are popularly elected in DuPage, Kane and Cook counties, and Will County voters elect an executive.
Will County is the only Illinois county with an executive form of government. Voters in Lake, Winnebago and Champaign counties have rejected executive referenda – three times in Champaign County’s case. It is much more prevalent in other states – about 840 of the nation’s 3,000 counties have an executive form of government.
Patriots United has not yet taken a position on the referendum.
The referendum is one of three countywide ballot issues facing McHenry County voters. Also on the ballot are a constitutional amendment to make it harder for governments to pass laws increasing pension benefits, and an advisory referendum asking whether Illinois officials should be forbidden from holding more than one elected office simultaneously.
On the Net
Visit the Northwest Herald’s pay archives at http://shawurl.com/cn5 to find a story explaining what a county executive is, and what it isn’t.
Powers of a county executive
Voters on Nov. 6 will be asked whether they want to change to a county executive form of government, without granting the county home-rule authority. Under this form of government, county voters elect not only their representatives on the County Board but also a countywide executive who acts as a CEO running the county’s day-to-day operations.
A county executive under the law wields more power and authority than a County Board chairman, which currently is selected by the County Board’s 24 members. Those powers include:
• Signing bills passed by the board and vetoing legislation. Vetoes can be overridden by a three-fifths majority vote.
• Preparing the annual budget for board approval.
• Recommending appointments and dismissal of department staff, boards and commissions, with board approval. The executive’s power does not apply to staff of countywide elected officeholders such as the sheriff or county clerk.
• Entering intergovernmental agreements.
• Presiding over board meetings. The executive votes only to break ties.
• Appointing independent legal counsel. However, the salary is set by the County Board and cannot exceed that of the state’s attorney.
• Redrawing the board’s legislative districts to adjust for population after each decennial U.S. Census.
Source: Illinois Compiled Statutes