McCaleb: County Board: Voters can’t be trusted

Call me Manti Te’o.

Naive, I mean. Call me naive. ... Yes, that’s it.

While I wasn’t tricked into believing I had an online girlfriend who later died of leukemia even though she never really existed, I was duped by several members of the McHenry County Board.

How so?

I actually took them at their word last fall when they were candidates for their current seats.

You’d think I’d know better after following politics for so long, but I guess not.

Let me explain.

Before each election, the Northwest Herald Editorial Board invites candidates for local office in to discuss the issues. I’m a member of the Editorial Board, and because all 24 County Board seats were up last year because of post-census redistricting, I got to meet quite a few people.

One of the hot local topics leading up to the November election was how the County Board chairman is selected. In McHenry County, voters do not elect their County Board chairman. Instead, voters elect their representatives to the County Board by district. The board members themselves then choose their chairman every two years.

State Rep. Jack Franks, our Editorial Board and others have been calling on the County Board to put a referendum on the ballot asking voters whether they’d rather elect their chairman directly at the polls. A chairman elected by voters countywide is accountable to everyone. A chairman elected by his fellow board members is accountable only to the other board members and the voters in his or her district.

Not surprisingly, the County Board resisted the calls. Forget voters, the board members themselves know better.

But Franks decided to take matters in his own hands, and collected enough signatures to get a referendum on the ballot. Because the popularly elected chairman referendum had to come from the County Board itself, Franks’ alternative referendum would have, if approved, changed the county to an executive form of government.

Without getting into all of the details here, an executive government would be dramatically different from what we have now.

Yes, voters countywide would elect the executive, but the executive would have a lot more power than the current board chairman has. Our Editorial Board opposed it. The referendum was defeated at the polls by about a 2-to-1 margin.

During our meetings with candidates in September, we asked each of them this question:

If the county executive referendum loses, would you support placing another referendum on the ballot asking voters whether they’d rather elect the County Board chairman at-large?

The vast majority said they would. Not all said they’d actually support passage of such a referendum. In fact, many said they preferred the status quo. But the vast majority agreed that voters should decide the issue.

Fortunately, I took notes.

Surprisingly, I still have them.

That brings me back to the present.

On Friday, the County Board held a special meeting to decide that very question – whether to place a chairman referendum on the April ballot. By an 11-9 vote with four members absent, the board decided against it.

A majority of board members deciding the issue, then, don’t think voters should have a say on the matter. They know better, apparently.

Of the 11 “no” votes Friday, six told us in September that they would support placing an at-large chairman referendum on the ballot.

Those six who reversed their pre-election statements are:

• Anna May Miller, District 1.

• Robert Nowak, District 1.

• Carolyn Schofield, District 2.

• Jim Heisler, District 2.

• Sue Draffkorn, District 4.

• Robert Martens, District 4.

Three of Friday’s “no” votes – Diane Evertsen, Ersel Schuster and Ken Koehler – said last fall they would not support putting another referendum on the ballot. Though they also don’t trust voters, they at least stuck with their previous position.

The final two “no” votes Friday were from Nick Chirikos and new County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill.

Hill told us in September she would support another referendum only if she heard overwhelming support for it from her constituents. I suggest that District 5 residents give her a call.

Chirikos never answered the question directly. I’m disappointed in myself that I did not push him for a direct response. In a written response to a questionnaire we sent candidates, he, like Hill, said that board members should take the issue up with constituents before deciding.

Of the four board members absent Friday, three – Paula Yensen, Mary McClellan and John Hammerand – all resoundingly said in September that they would support placing the second referendum on the ballot. Mary McCann said she would support “looking at” placing another referendum on the ballot.

Had two of the six flip-floppers voted the other way, or three of the four absent board members attended and voted the way they said they would, we would be deciding in April whether to make the County Board chairman accountable to all county voters.

Instead, the County Board decided it doesn’t trust voters with the decision. Board members know better.

Voters will need to decide whether they trust these people to represent them past their current terms.

• • • 

Speaking of Te’o: The unbelievable story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and his dead-girlfriend-who-never-actually-existed is mind-boggling. How much Te’o knew about the hoax and when is the million-dollar question, of course.

He gave his version late Friday in an interview with ESPN.

But as a journalist, what blows me away is the pathetic reporting practiced by both local and national media on this story before Deadspin.com revealed the hoax last week.

We all make our mistakes. That certainly includes me. But confirming key facts about a major subject in a story such as this is Journalism 101.

How one media outlet can report about a car accident (that never happened) involving Te’o’s supposed girlfriend and her death from leukemia (which, of course, didn’t happen; she didn’t exist) without confirming details of the accident or the death is troubling. How so many media outlets can do so is something far worse.

Everyone in journalism should be as embarrassed as I’m sure Te’o is about this whole mess.

• Dan McCaleb is group editor of Shaw Media and editor of the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4603, or by email at dmccaleb@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Dan_McCaleb.

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