WOODSTOCK – A referendum asking voters whether they want to popularly elect the McHenry County Board chairman will not be on the April ballot.
Board members at a special meeting Friday voted, 11-9, to reject the referendum, citing a lack of information, discomfort with perceived haste and support for the current system in which the board’s 24 members elect the chairman from among themselves after each November general election.
The issue has its roots in recent efforts by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, to try to force direct election of the chairman. Franks was behind a referendum on the November ballot that, had voters said yes, would have created a popularly elected county executive with wide-ranging powers.
County Board member Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, spearheaded Friday’s special meeting to consider placing the County Board chairman measure on the April 9 ballot after the Management Services Committee on Monday did not act.
Governments have until Tuesday to put a referendum on the ballot.
Provenzano has said that, in essence, board members who urged voters to reject the executive form of county government in November made a deal with the voters to pursue giving them the opportunity to weigh in on electing the chairman.
“I instigated this not because I want to advocate for direct election. I did it because we should have an opportunity for an up-or-down vote,” Provenzano said.
The referendum would have asked voters whether the board chairman should be elected at-large to a four-year term. It also specified that the chairman would not be counted as a board member, in effect creating a 25-member board – 24 members and a chairman. The chairman would vote only to break ties.
Opponents of the referendum were not convinced that the way the chairman is chosen is a problem in need of a solution, and said it would in fact backfire on those who support it in the name of accountability and transparency.
“Candidates would need to appeal to corporate and wealthy donors, thereby being beholden to them, and this scenario would be repeated every four years,” said member Nick Chirikos, D-Algonquin. “The chairperson’s time would be torn between his or her duty to the citizens and the need to solicit funds, as we now see in Congress.”
And many of those who voted in favor of a referendum made it clear that they oppose the idea, but want to give voters a say.
Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, called popular election a bad idea but said that after two years of dealing with the issue, it was time to put it to rest with a referendum.
Before the executive referendum, Franks filed a bill a year ago to force counties with more than 300,000 residents to allow citizens to directly elect their board chairmen. It resoundingly failed in the House on a 100-16 vote. The bill was targeted at McHenry and Lake counties, the only two in the state that meet the population threshold.
The County Board called an August special meeting to ponder putting a popular-election referendum on the ballot to give voters a choice over the executive referendum. Board members rejected the idea, citing the voter confusion that could ensue.
“The only way to get past this is to put this on the ballot,” Gottemoller said.
Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, voted yes for the referendum but said she feared that a popularly elected chairman could result in a “greater accumulation of power” that would diminish the accountability she seeks from county government.
“We have to make a decision on something that may not solve the problem, and in fact may make the problem worse,” Kurtz said.
Both Chirikos and Anna May Miller, R-Cary, said that they have heard nothing from their constituents about wanting to elect the chairman. Chirikos said he has heard them talk about their property-tax burden, roads, jobs and other issues to which the County Board’s time would be better used.
Board member Mike Skala, R-Huntley, voted for the referendum but alleged that the entire “messy” issue has been manufactured by “outside influences,” including Franks and the Northwest Herald.
“That’s messy, and that’s disturbing,” Skala said.
The Management Services Committee on Monday decided to attempt meaningful reform by changing County Board rules, which the committee reviews after every election. One idea would be to take away the chairman’s power to appoint the heads of standing committees.
Critics, such as committee member Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, allege that the chairman election is heavily weighted in favor of the incumbent. It takes 13 votes to be re-elected by the board, and an incumbent can secure 11 of those votes, not counting his or her own, through assigning the sought-after chairmanships of the board’s standing committees.
“I think this gives us a renewed impetus to do that and avoid the need to even reconsider this issue,” said Walkup, who also voted in favor of a referendum.
Nine of the state’s 102 counties allow voters to elect their board chairman, or in Will County’s case, a county executive. Those counties tend to have larger populations and include larger cities, such as the collar counties, Rockford and the East St. Louis area.
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 as the County Board tweaked its district boundaries but did not move forward.
How they voted
The McHenry County Board voted, 11-9, against putting a referendum on the April 9 ballot asking voters whether they want to popularly elect the board chairman.
Voting against were Nick Chirikos, D-Algonquin; Sue Draffkorn, R-Wonder Lake; Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard; James Heisler, R-Crystal Lake; Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake; Robert Martens Sr., R-Spring Grove; Anna May Miller, R-Cary; Robert Nowak, R-Cary; Carolyn Schofield, R-Crystal Lake; Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock; and Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock.
Voting in favor were Michele Aavang, R-Woodstock; Yvonne Barnes, R-Cary; Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake; John Jung, R-Woodstock; Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake; Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry; Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry; Mike Skala, R-Huntley; and Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake.
Members John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake; Mary McCann, R-Woodstock; Mary McClellan, R-Holiday Hills; and Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, were absent.