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Reporter's notebook, county referendum edition

Even though he won't be in the room, Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks will very likely be the 900-pound gorilla at Friday's special meeting of the McHenry County Board.

Sure to be on the minds of more than one board member will be whether Franks will again make their lives interesting and fun-filled should they reject an April referendum to make the board chairmanship elected by the voters rather than the 24-member board.

As I wrote in today's paper, a faction of the McHenry County Board has forced a special meeting to get a vote on whether to put a referendum to voters in April. The meeting comes after the Management Services committee on Monday did not move the idea forward, and four days before the ballot deadline.

So what are some of the forces that could be in play during the debate?

• FRANKS FOR THE MEMORIES: As regular readers know, this ongoing kerfuffle about how the board chairman is picked started with Franks, who after unsuccessful attempts to force it through legislation put a referendum of his own on last November's ballot to change to a county executive form of government.

The County Board, for lack of a better word, freaked. Besides individual members actively opposing it during their campaigns, they pondered, but rejected, a competing referendum to give the voters the choice of popularly electing the chairman.

It turns out that it wasn't needed, because voters squashed the executive idea by a 2-to-1 margin. But the referendum resolution the county board rejected will be back on the table tomorrow.

It has to be on the minds of more than one board member that, if they don't move forward on a referendum, Franks would likely keep plugging away at doing the honors for them.

Under state law, it takes only 500 signatures to get the executive referendum on the ballot in a county of McHenry County's size. So County Board members who felt that they really showed Franks a thing or two last November can show him again and again by defeating an executive referendum in 2014, 2016, 2018 ...

Franks insisted during the referendum campaign that his sole goal was empowering voters, and not, as opponents alleged, using the ballot box to fight a personal crusade against former board chairman Ken Koehler.

An altruistic motive would mean that Franks could very likely try again to intercede should the County Board balk.

• FRANKS' OPINION: Franks told me Thursday that he could not believe that the County Board needs a special meeting to do "what the vast majority had promised the voters they were going to do."

"The fact remains that any delay will deny democracy. If they don't do this immediately, the citizens of our county will continue to be disenfranchised. This is really a fundamental issue of whether you believe in democracy and letting voters decide how they are governed or whether you believe in a closed system dominated by and for insiders," Franks said.

• GOOFY LAWS: As we all know, the way that the laws are written in Illinois, Land of Corruption, allow lots of room for wackiness, and the laws covering a popularly-elected chairman are no different.

The law allows for a popularly-elected board chairman to serve a 2-year or 4-year term. Under a 4-year term, which is likely the one that the County Board would pursue, the chairman may or may not be a member of the board.

If the chairman is not a board member, he or she only votes to break ties. State law also allows a board chairman candidate to run as a board member, which if both offices are won, would allow the chairman to vote on all issues just as the seat does now.

"This structure would result in the possibility that the ability for the chair to vote might change from election to election. Thus, the necessity of creating an additional position to account for a chairman who has not been elected as a board member will need to be considered," according to an August memo to the County Board from the McHenry County State's Attorney's Office.

In short, the board might have to ponder a 25th seat.

The 2-year term rules are even sillier. Under that setup, which no other Illinois county has, the popularly-elected chairman must also be a board member. So what happens if a candidate wins the chairman race but loses his board race? The law doesn't say.

• ELECTION CENTRAL: A reader pointed out to me a few days ago that our election questionnaires from the November election are still on our website.

At least 10 candidates who have since been elected have signaled that they support a popularly-elected chairman, or at least are amenable to the idea of a referendum asking voters what they want. That does not mean the remaining 14 oppose the idea. Some do, while others did not directly state where they stand.

• A HOTBED OF REST: An issue referendum opponents may try to throw into the debate is the pathetically low voter turnout in April elections.

Turnout in the last April election reached an all-time low of 12.5 percent. And as I pointed out at the end of this story, turnout over the past four April elections has averaged 16.3 percent, dropping steadily with every election.

On the flip side, turnout wasn't an issue when board members in November, with little debate, put a referendum on the April ballot at the behest of cash-strapped social service agencies who want to create a new taxing body to help people with developmental disabilities.
More than one Management Services Committee member on Monday suggested that community outreach, focus groups and the like were needed to gauge the community's mood on whether to make the chairmanship popularly elected.

The idea might rear its head again Friday.

But speaking of that "377 Board" referendum we'll be facing in April, I don't remember any County Board member suggesting that they first go out into the community to gauge support for a new taxing body and a new property tax to finance it.

The nobility of the agencies' cause aside, would any focus group or meeting of regular voters have come back in this state's economic climate asking the County Board for a tax increase referendum?

Which, of course, leads us to an argument that we could hear tomorrow from supporters of a chairman referendum: If we can be trusted to decide how we're taxed, why not how we're led?
Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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