Committee advances referendum for two-year McHenry County Board chairman terms

WOODSTOCK – A McHenry County Board committee decided that four years is too long a term for a popularly-elected board chairman.

The Management Services Committee voted Monday to recommend putting a referendum on the March ballot asking voters if they want to elect the chairman every two years. The chairman presently is elected after every November election from among the 24-member County Board.

Committee members voted, 5-2, to amend the resolution that originally called for a four-year term like all other countywide elected offices. It then voted, 6-1, to send it to the full County Board for a vote. Member Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, proposed the amendment.

Supporters called a two-year elected term the best way to keep the office accountable, while opponents said that the terms would promote incumbency by limiting candidates to those with the financial means to run every other year.

"We'd have a two-year term in place – it increases the accountability and responsibility of this office," supporter Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, said.

The resolution will go before the full County Board at its Aug. 20 meeting. Committee members stressed that the County Board would be free, if the majority so wished, to amend the proposal back to a four-year term.

Should a referendum go forward and be approved by the voters, the chairman seat would be elected in the 2016 cycle.

The committee discussion mirrored past County Board discussions as calls for a popularly-elected chairman have increased in recent years. Some support the idea of direct election, which is done in most collar counties, while others oppose the idea but support giving the voters the choice to decide.

Former Chairman Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, served four terms as chairman before losing his bid for a fifth term to Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, in December. Calls during the latter years of Koehler's eight-year reign to make the chairmanship popularly elected culminated last November in an unsuccessful referendum to change to a county executive form of government like Will County has.

While Chairwoman Paula Yensen voted for the amendment and moving it forward, she expressed reservations about a two-year term. Yensen said the financial resources needed to run every other year would severely shrink the pool of candidates.

Hill, who sat in the audience, added that re-election dominates the agendas of officials elected to two-year terms. Hill spent years working as a legislative liaison for the Illinois House, where seats are up for grabs every two years.

"They have barely any time to govern, to put policy forward and do the job," Hill said.

State law adds another wrinkle to a popularly-elected two-year term that could cause the County Board an electoral headache. A chairman elected to a two-year terms by the voters is required to be a member of the County Board. But the law does not address what to do if a candidate wins the election for the chairman's seat, but loses his or her election for the board seat, according to an August 2012 opinion from the McHenry County State's Attorney's Office.

The original ordinance called for a chairman elected to a four-year term but not a member of the board. Under that configuration, a chairman does not cast a vote except to break a tie.

The sole opposing vote on moving a resolution forward came from committee member Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock. She said moving forward with a referendum is inappropriate while the County Board is mulling over changes to its rules, a number of which seek to limit the power of the chairman through term limits and attacking its power of incumbency.

Those rule changes, also developed by the Management Services Committee, are scheduled for a September vote.

The Lake County Board, like McHenry County's, elects the chairman from among themselves every two years. Voters in Kane, Cook and DuPage counties directly elect their board chairman to four-year terms. Will County voters every four years elect a county executive.

What it means

The McHenry County Board Management Services Committee voted Monday, 6-1, to recommend a referendum question asking voters if they want to popularly elect the board chairman every two years. The original proposed resolution called for a four-year term, but committee members voted, 5-2, to amend it.

Voting yes on the amendment were Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, and Chairwoman Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills. Voting no were Anna May Miller, R-Cary, and Michael Skala, R-Huntley.

Schuster voted against moving the referendum forward.

What's next

The resolution will go before the full County Board at its next meeting at 7 p.m. Aug. 20 at the county Administration Building, 667 Ware Road, Woodstock.

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