Referendum to elect County Board chairman divides members

Our view: Voters deserve option on McHenry County Board chairman

WOODSTOCK – The debate about whether voters should elect the McHenry County Board chairman may be headed for a special meeting after a committee decided against moving the idea forward.

A majority of the Management Services Committee on Monday expressed reservations about the idea and decided not to pursue – at least for the April 9 ballot – a binding referendum to put the chairmanship in the hands of voters rather than the board’s 24 members.

With a week before the deadline to put a referendum on the April ballot, board member Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, and freshman committee member Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, said at the meeting that they intended to muster up the eight board members needed to call a special meeting with the intention of getting the question before voters.

Provenzano, who is not on the committee, said that board members who actively opposed the November county-executive referendum in effect made a tacit bargain with the voters: The board will pursue a referendum to popularly elect the chairman if the public rejects changing to a county-executive form of government.

The board in August considered but rejected putting the referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot to give voters a choice in ­creating an executive with wide-ranging powers. Voters ended up rejecting the executive referendum by a 2-to-1 margin.

“I think it’s absolutely a bargain that we need to fulfill,” Provenzano said.

New County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, gave the committee the task of exploring the referendum as its first order of business, citing voter interest in the topic.

Committee members, who had the item up for discussion but did not have a resolution to vote on, decided instead to pursue reforms through changing County Board rules.

The committee is given the task after every general election of reviewing those rules and recommending changes.

The fact that a resolution was not ready to go is the reason why Walkup is pushing for a special board meeting. Although the full County Board already is scheduled to meet tonight, a referendum is not on the agenda.

“Why didn’t we have a resolution to consider at today’s meeting rather than have a bunch of empty talk?” Walkup said Monday afternoon.

Committee members cited numerous problems they had with a referendum, not the least of which was the timetable for an April vote.

“Act in haste, repent at leisure. We could end up with something we do not want that is not in the best interests of the county,” said member Anna May Miller, R-Cary.

State law itself, which allows the option of two- or four-year terms for elected chairmen, posed a problem for committee members. A two-year term requires the chairman to be a board member under the law, but the law does not address what to do if a candidate wins the chairmanship but loses the board seat.

But a four-year term was too much for other committee members. Without the power to enact term limits or recall elected officials, committee member Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, said an elected chairman could become entrenched and reduce accountability.

“To me, if I am going to the voters, I’d better be darned well sure that I’m not making the problem worse,” Kurtz said.

Walkup and fellow board freshman Michael Skala, R-Huntley, suggested putting term limits for the chairman in the County Board rules despite the fact that state law does not empower counties to impose them.

Skala said that no chairman would dare challenge the rule in court out of fear of looking like a power-hungry czar.

However, Donna Kelly, McHenry County state’s attorney civil division chief, and Assistant State’s Attorney Jana Blake Dickson advised against approving any authority not specifically allowed under the law. Kelly advised that any county voter, not just the chairman, could challenge County Board rules in court.

The committee after the 2010 election suggested adding a “recommendation” to the board rules asking the chairman and vice chairman not to serve more than three consecutive terms. The full County Board overwhelmingly rejected the idea of putting unenforceable language in its rules.

Committee members Monday also advanced the idea of taking away the chairman’s ability to appoint committee chairmanships with the consent of the full board.

Some board members have alleged over the years that the power gives an incumbent board chairman an unfair advantage, given that there are 11 standing committees and 13 votes are needed to be re-elected.

“That’s the real evil,” Walkup said. “We could address that.”

Nine of the state’s 102 counties, which includes Cook, allow voters to elect the county board chairman. Those counties tend to have larger populations and include larger cities, such as the collar counties, Rockford and the East St. Louis area. All of them are elected to four-year terms, Kelly said.

State law allows county governments to go to an elected chairman without a referendum during the redistricting process after each decennial U.S. Census. The topic arose in 2011 when the County Board tweaked its district boundaries but did not move forward.

Voters already face one countywide referendum in April.

The County Board in November voted to advance a referendum asking voters to create a “377 Board” with its own property-tax levy to help fund agencies that serve residents with developmental disabilities.

What it means

The McHenry County Board Management Services Committee on Monday did not move forward with putting a referendum on the April 9 ballot to make the County Board chairmanship popularly elected.

Several County Board members said they will pursue calling a special meeting of the full board to discuss doing so. The deadline for local governments to put referendums on the April 9 ballot is Jan. 22.

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