Term limits eyed for McHenry County Board leaders

Changes would restrict county chairman, vice chairman to 6 years in post

WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board chairman and vice chairman would be limited to three consecutive two-year terms under proposed rule changes.

The proposal, which the State’s Attorney’s Office has said exceeds the board’s powers under state law, is one of several to curtail the chairman’s powers that is before the board’s Management Services Committee.

Another would strip the chairman of the power to appoint committee chairmanships, and another would eliminate the chairman’s prerogative to pull items off the agenda without a full board vote.

The proposals are about examining change and are not a statement on new Chairwoman Tina Hill, said committee Chairwoman Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills. The committee is tasked with reviewing County Board rules after each general election.

“It’s not a reflection of Miss Hill whatsoever – [committee members are] reviewing the board rules with a fresh set of eyes, and they’re rethinking the processes we have in place,” Yensen said Tuesday.

The committee is expected in April to make its final recommendations, which would face a County Board vote in May after a 30-day review.

The incumbency of the chairmanship, which is elected from the board’s 24 members upon their seating after each election, has come under scrutiny in recent years. Hill, R-Woodstock, defeated former Chairman Ken Koehler’s bid in December for a fifth two-year term.

It culminated during Koehler’s last term as chairman with calls to make the seat popularly elected, and an unsuccessful November referendum spearheaded by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, to change to a county executive form of government.

The State’s Attorney’s Office says state law does not empower county boards to impose term limits, even for an internal chairmanship. The office, which is the County Board’s legal counsel, takes the position that it is ill-advised to create rules or ordinances that may not be legally defensible.

Supporters have said a chairman wouldn’t dare try to challenge it in court and give the appearance of being power-hungry. Opponents have said that anybody, not just a chairman wanting a fourth term, could file a legal complaint.

The management committee two years ago tried to sidestep the legal question by proposing adding a nonbinding “recommendation” to board rules asking the chairman not to pursue more than three terms. The full County Board defeated the idea.

Another proposed change would take away almost all of the chairman’s say in assigning committee memberships. The chairman after each election appoints one member from each County Board district to form a Committee on Committees.

That group, with the chairman as the seventh member, assigns all 24 board members to the committees in which most of county government’s work gets done. Although the committee also makes recommendations as to who gets coveted chairmanships, the County Board chairman can make changes. Assignments are approved by the full County Board.

Under the proposed new rules, each of the six districts would caucus to select a representative to the Committee on Committees, and the chairman no longer would have the prerogative to recommend committee chairmen. Critics on the County Board have alleged that the current system heavily favors the incumbent chairman, who can secure all but one of the votes needed for re-election with the power to choose the chairmen of the board’s 11 standing committees.

Committee member Michael Walkup said the rule changes would result in a “more level playing field” that, in turn, could improve voter trust.

“The whole reason the direct election of the County Board chairman came up is because re-election is skewed in favor of the incumbent,” said Walkup, R-Crystal Lake. “In my way of thinking, that eliminates one of the main issues that gave rise to [calls for] direct election and a county executive.”

Yensen said a referendum to ask voters whether they want to popularly elect the chairman is still open for discussion after the rule review is finished and changes adopted. An attempt earlier this year to put a referendum on the April 9 ballot fell short because of time constraints and opponents who alleged the process was being rushed.

Hill directed the committee as one of her first official acts as chairwoman to discuss a referendum.

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