Reporter's Notebook: Electing the board chairman

Published: Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 1:04 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Aug. 25, 2014 11:37 a.m. CDT

The McHenry County Board tomorrow night is scheduled to wrestle with the latest controversial idea to come from its Management Services Committee.

As I wrote last week, the committee has advanced a proposal to ask for a voter referendum to make the seat of County Board chairman popularly elected to two-year terms. The proposal that came before the committee called for four-year terms, like every other countywide elected office, but a majority of the committee amended it.

Interestingly, this debate comes two weeks before the County Board is set to vote on sweeping changes to its rules (also masterminded by Management Services), a number of which take direct aim at limiting the powers and incumbency of the chairmanship. The issue of how much power and influence the chair wields has come to a head after eight years of former Chairman Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, and issues with how new Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, handled another committee's efforts to shake up the embattled Mental Health Board.

The debate over whether the committee and referendum supporters are putting the cart before the horse is one of several that will undoubtedly arise when the referendum is put to a vote. Allow me to put some of this debate into perspective:

• THE CHOICES: The County Board has four options Tuesday night, provided it doesn't table the vote: Approve the two-year option, amend the bill back to its original form and approve the four-year option, amend the bill to create a different four-year option allowed under state law, or reject a referendum altogether.

There are some legal and political issues in play that will influence the ultimate decision.

• THE TWO-YEAR CONUNDRUM:
No County Board gaggle would be complete without confusion created by the laws thought up by the same Springfield rocket scientists who brought you the $100 Billion Unfunded Pension Liability and Recovery-Strangling Tax Hike.

A county board chairman elected to a two-year term must also be a member of the board. This could mean in some elections that the candidate would appear twice on the ballot – once countywide for chairman, and once in his or her respective district. So what happens if a candidate wins the chairmanship but loses the required county board seat? Good question – the law doesn't say.

As with the state Close the McHenry County Taxpayer-Funded Special Prosecutor Feed Trough Act, we could become the test case.

• THE FOUR-YEAR OPTION: The original resolution that the committee amended asked voters if they want to popularly elect the chairman to a four-year term and not have the chairman be a member of the board for voting purposes. This essentially would mean a 25th member, who would only vote to break a tie.

State law also allows counties the option of a four-year chairman who is a member of the County Board, which means the chairman, like now, would be able to vote. However, the county would face the same election conundrum that the two-year seat offers in that the chairman-elect may end up losing his or her board seat.

We're not done in the conundrum department in this scenario. If the chairman's four-year term does not match up with his or her four-year board term (terms are staggered so half of the board's 24 seats are up in any given election), the ability for the chairman to vote could change with each election.

• THE NUCLEAR OPTION: There is, of course, the chance that the County Board could reverse course – and in many cases renege on what they promised during the 2012 election – and reject the referendum outright.

Even board members who support popular election, but oppose either the referendum as presented or the timing with the rule changes looming, could find themselves between a political rock and a hard place if they vote their conscience. For one thing, there's the perception of opposing the County Board's latest buzzwords of openness and transparency.

And there's the other little thing about reliving the political nightmare of a county executive referendum that got this whole thing started.

Voters last year mustered up the 500 signatures needed to put a referendum on the November ballot that would change to a county executive form of government like Will County has. On the downside, that form of government puts a lot of power into the hands of one person who would act like the County Board's executive branch. On the upside, the executive is up for election every four years.

As I've blogged here before, County Board members have raised fears that rejecting a referendum would mean, given the ease with which one can scrape up 500 voter signatures, that it would face a county executive referendum in each November election.

• UNLESS ... :  It could be tempting for County Board members who oppose popular election of the chairman to place an onerous or confusing question ( like what happens if a candidate wins one race but loses the other) on the ballot. Voters may be more likely to reject it, and County Board members in question can pat themselves on the back for giving them the choice.

• PRO AND ANTI:  The two main arguments that came out of committee on both sides of the issue amounted to accountability and money.

Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, said two-year terms for the chairmanship would "increase accountability and responsibility." But while Chairwoman Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, voted to advance the amended referendum for the sake of full County Board debate, she argued that two-year terms could in fact limit the pool of candidates to those with the financial means to run.

And Yensen's point doesn't include the wrinkle of the rule changes should many of them be adopted. The argument could be made that no one would be willing to raise and spend the money every two years for a paper tiger position.

• TWO-YEAR ARITHMETIC:  When it comes to two-year terms meaning turnover, accountability and new blood, I'm sure a County Board member tomorrow night will bring up former U.S. Reps. Phil Crane and Don Manzullo, and present state Reps. Mike Tryon and Jack Franks. Add up their two-year terms, and you'll get 79 years of elected office and counting.

• ONE BORN EVERY MINUTE:
Whenever popular election of the chairmanship comes up, there is always a handful of County Board members who try to sell the idea that popular election of the chairman will inject money and influence to foul the pristine, clean waters of county government that presently have no such temptations.

I've stated it before on this blog, and I'll state it again for any County Board member who has the urge to tell this Big Fish Story tomorrow evening.

You're. Not. Fooling. Anyone.

Senior Reporter Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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