Timing tight for County Board chairman referendum

WOODSTOCK – One of new McHenry County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill’s first priorities is to discuss a referendum to make her office elected by the people rather than by the 24-member board.

But there are questions to be answered and ambiguities in state law to be cleared, and not a lot of time in which to do them if the goal is to get the referendum on the April 9 ballot.

Hill, R-Woodstock, said the public has made it clear that they want to weigh in, and if April is too ambitious, maybe the 2014 election cycle.

“[A referendum] is what we heard from the electorate. The timing is very, very tight. I don’t know if we’ll be able to make it for this ballot,” Hill said.

It will not be until Jan. 3 that the County Board will vote to approve its new committee memberships, which changed radically in the face of a new chairwoman and more than one-third of the members being newly elected. Barring any special meetings, it will not be until Jan. 14 that the Management Services Committee that sets county government rules meets to debate the issue.

The full County Board meets the next day – Jan. 15 – exactly one week before the Jan. 22 deadline for governments to put referendums on the April ballot.

Incoming Management Services Chairwoman Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, included such a referendum in her re-election platform and said she is committed to getting it on the ballot, while respecting the process.

“We need to be very deliberate in our approach so that all stakeholders can weigh in on this,” Yensen said.

A debate to get the referendum on the April ballot would not be the first time the County Board deliberated in haste on the issue.

Board members in August considered putting the referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot to give voters a choice instead of a referendum spearheaded by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, to change county government to an executive form, meaning they would elect a county executive every four years with wide-ranging powers. Franks said he drove the initiative to empower county voters, pointing to the fact that most of the collar counties popularly elect their county government heads, but opponents called the effort a politically motivated attempt at deposing former four-term Chairman Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake.

The County Board rejected dueling referendums to avoid voter confusion and the fact that the executive referendum, if successful, would supersede theirs. However, voters in November soundly rejected the executive referendum by a 2-to-1 margin.

While the boards of McHenry and Lake counties elect their chairmen from among themselves, voters have the say in Cook and the remaining collar counties, while Will County voters elect an executive. About 90 percent of Illinois counties choose their chairmen internally, according to the Illinois Association of County Board Members and Commissioners.

State law and case law are somewhat ambiguous when it comes to what a popularly elected chairman would entail. The County Board would have the option of making it a two-year or four-year seat, and each choice has a different effect on the board’s makeup. Assistant State’s Attorney Jana Blake Dickson said she would attend the committee meetings to answer legal questions.

Hill said she hopes that voters will not accuse the County Board of delaying the issue if the referendum does not make the April ballot.

“Absolutely some people will think we’re dragging our feet, but that is absolutely not the case – that’s why I put it right on that first [Management Services] agenda. But to make rash decisions is irresponsible,” Hill said.

State law allows county boards during redistricting after each decennial U.S. Census to make the chairmanship popularly elected without going to referendum. Some County Board members discussed the possibility last year as district boundaries were adjusted, but no initiative came of it.

What’s next?

The McHenry County Board Management Services Committee at its first meeting with new members next month will discuss a referendum to ask voters whether they want the board chairmanship to be popularly elected.

The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 14, barring any special meetings, or about a week before the Jan. 22 deadline for governments to put a referendum on the April 9 ballot.

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