WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board will review its rules before it looks into a referendum to popularly elect its chairman.
The Management Services Committee agreed Monday morning to prioritize its post-election review of board rules before examining whether to put the question before voters in 2014. The 24-member board elects its chairman from among board members to a two-year term after each November general election.
But let it fall off the to-do list, committee member Michael Walkup warned, and the County Board again next year could face another citizen referendum to change to a county executive form of government, as was attempted in November.
While state law limits an executive referendum to the November election, it takes only 500 signatures to get it on the ballot in a county of McHenry County’s size.
“We need to either put it on the ballot in the primary or take action well before [November 2014] to put it on the ballot before fall,” said Walkup, R-Crystal Lake.
Monday’s agreement means the committee will revisit a referendum by spring or early summer. Committee members likely will explore holding public meetings to gauge voter support for the idea.
By 2-to-1 margin in November, voters rejected a referendum to create a countywide elected executive, who under Illinois law wields wide-ranging powers, such as the power to hire staff and draft the budget. The referendum was spearheaded by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who had made other attempts to force the County Board to make the chairmanship directly elected.
The issue of electing the chairman got the newly elected County Board – one-third of whom are freshman members – off to an interesting start.
New 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.
But the committee’s first post-election meeting was not until Jan. 14, or a week before the deadline to put a referendum question on the April ballot.
A faction that included Walkup forced a special meeting of the full County Board after the committee discussed, but did not move forward with, a ballot question. Board members Jan. 18 narrowly defeated, 11-9, an April referendum for a chairman to be elected to a four-year term.
A number of the “no” voters said they did not oppose a referendum, but had too many unanswered questions and not enough time. Likewise, a number of the “yes” voters said they supported giving voters the choice, but said they did not endorse the idea of popular election.
“I didn’t vote ‘no’ because I objected to it, but because it was too fast from my perspective,” said committee member Anna May Miller, R-Cary.
Although state law does not empower county boards to impose term limits on the chairman, according to the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office, amending board rules could prove to be an alternate road to reform.
One idea likely to arise during the review will be to take away the chairman’s power to appoint the heads of standing committees. Critics on the County Board allege that the current election system is heavily weighted in favor of the incumbent, who by promising the coveted chairmanships of the 11 standing committees is one vote shy of re-election.
The committee after the 2010 election suggested adding a “recommendation” to board rules asking the chairman and vice chairman to limit themselves to two consecutive terms. The idea was soundly rejected by the full County Board on the grounds that its rulebook was no place for unenforceable suggestions.
Committee member Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, was the most vocal voice for overhauling the board rules before touching the referendum issue.
“I think we’re jumping the gun here,” she said.
Nine of the state’s 102 counties allow voters to directly elect their chairmen, or in Will County’s case, an executive. Those counties tend to have larger populations and include larger cities, such as the collar counties, Rockford and the East St. Louis area. Of the collar counties, Lake County is the only other one that keeps the chairmanship in the hands of board members.
State law does not grant a popularly elected county board chairman any additional powers except the option, if he or she so chooses, to propose a redistricting map for full board review after each 10-year U.S. Census.