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Voters to directly elect County Board chair

Published: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 12:06 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 2:17 p.m. CDT

Voters decided Tuesday that the power to elect the McHenry County Board chairman should rest with the public from now on.

By almost 60 percent to 40 percent, voters approved a binding referendum to change the way the board chairman is elected. Starting in 2016, the voters will elect the chairman rather than the 24 board members themselves.

Supporters for the change cast 18,722 votes, compared to 14,134 votes opposed, according to unofficial totals. Tuesday’s referendum is the culmination of a years-long political battle over the power and incumbency of the office.

The County Board after the 2016 election will be made up of 25 members – the current 24-member board and the chairman. The chairman will not be a voting member, unlike now, and will only cast a vote to break a tie. The job comes with no extra powers except for the authority to call special meetings and the option to propose a redistricting of board districts following each decennial U.S. Census.

Under the current system, the County Board elects the chairman every two years after each November election, with at least 13 votes needed to win.

Opponents said a popular election will require campaign funding, and open the office up to special interests. Supporters have pointed out the power of incumbency is strong under the current structure because the chairman can trade appointments to chairmen of standing committees in exchange for votes. 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, and spearheaded an unsuccessful referendum to change to a county executive form of government. The County Board voted last August, 19-4, to 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.

Tuesday’s vote leaves Lake County as the sole collar county where the board selects the chairman. Voters in Kane and DuPage counties directly elect their board chairmen. Will County voters elect an executive, and Cook County voters elect a board president – both of those offices act as an executive branch and wield significantly more power. Several Illinois counties with larger populations have direct election, including Winnebago, LaSalle, Madison and St. Clair counties.

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