A years-long political battle over whether voters should get to elect the chairman of the McHenry County Board will come to a head on the March 18 primary ballot.
Voters will get to decide in a binding referendum whether to elect the County Board chairman for themselves, or continue the practice of allowing the 24-member board to elect the chairman from among its own ranks.
The following is a list of questions voters may have, with answers based on state statute governing elections and county government.
Q: What happens if the referendum passes?
A: If approved by county voters, they will get to popularly elect the chairman to four-year terms, starting with the 2016 election.
The McHenry County Board would be made up of 25 members – the current 24-member board and the board chairman. The chairman in this case will not be a voting member, unlike now.
Q: How is the chairman elected now?
A: The County Board elects a chairman and a vice chairman from among themselves every two years when the new board is seated after each November election. A chairman or vice chairman must have a majority vote, or at least 13 members.
The vice chairman would not be popularly elected if the referendum passes. State law does not provide a mechanism for doing so.
Q: Is this referendum the same as the county executive referendum defeated in 2012?
A: No – that was a completely separate matter. That referendum would have changed county government to an executive form, which creates a county executive who wields significant powers such as the executive branch of state or federal government, hence the name. Only one Illinois county has an executive form of government.
The only thing this referendum changes, if approved, is who gets to elect the McHenry County Board chairman.
Q: What new powers would an elected chairman have?
A: Not much at all.
A chairman elected by voters has the power to unilaterally call special meetings of the County Board. And after each 10-year U.S. Census, the chairman has the option to propose his or her own redistricting map of County Board districts, based on population data. The County Board either can vote to approve it, or reject it and approve its own.
Q: Could the County Board grant the chairman more authority?
A: The County Board, if it wished, could grant the chairman the power of amendatory veto over legislation it passes. But that veto under state law can be overridden with a simple majority, not a three-fifths majority.
State law automatically grants veto power over county board budgets to elected chairmen of counties with 700,000 or more residents, but McHenry County's population is less than half of that threshold.
Q: What are the arguments for popular election?
A: Supporters argue that voters in a county the size of McHenry County should decide the County Board chairmanship, not the members. Direct election, they add, would mean more accountability.
Q: What do the other collar counties do?
A: The Lake County Board, like McHenry County's, elects its chairman. Voters in Kane and DuPage counties directly elect the chairman. Cook County voters elect a board president, and Will County voters elect a county executive – both offices act as an executive branch and wield significantly more power than county chairmen.
Several Illinois counties with larger populations have direct election, including Winnebago, LaSalle, Madison and St. Clair counties.
Q: What are the arguments against popular election?
A: Opponents argue that direct election would require a lot more money to run for the office, opening it up to special interest influence. They also argue that accountability already exists because the chairman is a board member up for election every four years, as are the members who elect the chairman.
Q: How did we get here?
Supporters have been pushing for a referendum since 2010, and brought it up in 2011 during post-census redistricting, when state law allows county boards to go to direct election without a referendum.
State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, in 2012 filed a bill that would have forced popular election in McHenry and Lake counties. The bill got crushed in the House, but Franks spearheaded putting the county executive referendum on the November 2012 ballot. The County Board voted last August, 19-4, to finally put the question to voters this March.
The issue of the chairman's power and incumbency has come to a head in recent years over the power and incumbency of former Chairman Ken Koehler, who was elected to four terms by the County Board before losing his 2012 bid for a fifth.
Some opponents of direct election have alleged the entire issue is a result of what they call a political vendetta by Franks against Koehler.
Q: How long do chairmen stay in office?
A: The average is four years – or two two-year terms – since the County Board went to its current structure after the 1970 Illinois Constitution did away with county boards made up of township supervisors. There have been 11 chairmen since, including current Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock.
But tenure has increased over time – Koehler served eight years, while his predecessors, Mike Tryon and Dianne Klemm, served six.