Local Government

County Board takes first step in reorganization debate

WOODSTOCK – The newly created McHenry County Board Reorganization Committee spent portions of its first meeting Thursday looking anything but organized.

Debate over its task – examining whether the County Board should have fewer members representing more districts – took all kinds of wild turns, including such esoteric topics as terrorists shooting at power transformers and the Lake in the Hills Fen, as members threw ideas at the wall to see what would stick.

In its defense, the nine-member committee was thrown together in haste to determine whether voters should weigh in via advisory referendum, and the deadline to put it on the Nov. 4 ballot is three weeks and one County Board meeting away.

But while the committee is moving forward with planning for a possible change to the County Board's structure, it decided that putting an advisory referendum on the November ballot without doing its due diligence would be unwise. And given that the next opportunity to make such changes is seven years away after the 2020 U.S. Census, a rush makes no sense.

"Rather than hurry up and do something we're going to regret later, let's slow it down," committee member Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard, said.

The committee will meet again Sept. 18, and gave County Administrator Peter Austin a long list of information to collect, from how the state's most populous counties are governed to the costs, salaries and benefits their members receive. While a number of members questioned the value of advisory referendums, it did not rule out putting one on the April 2015 ballot.

Illinois governments are required after every decennial census to adjust their legislative boundaries to ensure that districts have roughly equal population. But they also have a window to alter the number of members or districts if they so choose.

While the County Board after the 2010 Census chose not to deviate from its longtime structure of six districts represented by four members each, other collar counties did make changes. Kane, Lake and Will counties shrunk the sizes of their county boards. Will also overhauled its representation, and went from three large districts with nine members each to 13 districts of two each.

The debate over McHenry County was re-energized in June when state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, asked the County Board in a letter for an advisory referendum asking voters whether it should shrink to 16 single-member districts. While the County Board committee in charge of legislative initiatives rejected Franks' request on a 1-4 vote earlier this month, board Chairman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, felt the debate was one worth having.

However, a decision by the County Board to change its size or structure would not be as simple as it sounds.

A major reduction – committee member John Hammerand threw out the idea of halving the board to 12 members – would also mean the 11 standing committees in which the board does much of its work would have to be pared down and consolidated. Another issue would be how to ensure that each district is adequately represented on each committee. Each district gets at least one seat under the current system.

Yet another issue undoubtedly would be to ensure that the county's rural western half, now represented by one district, does not lose representation under a new map and lose its voice against encroaching development. That concern was reinforced Thursday by the fact that all but one of rural District 6's representatives decided to join the reorganization committee. Evertsen was joined by rural Woodstock representatives Ersel Schuster and Michele Aavang.

The reorganization committee appeared to be more amenable to districts of two members each rather than one, to ensure that voters had a decision to make every two years with staggered elections.

Hill announced the creation of the committee, chaired by Carolyn Schofield, R-Crystal Lake, at last week's County Board meeting, and said its membership would consist of whomever showed up or expressed interest.

An opinion from the McHenry County State's Attorney's Office concluded that voters would be able to pursue a binding referendum to change the number of County Board districts, but only in an election during a census. Only the County Board has the power under the law to change the number of members, according to the opinion.

Voters earlier this year approved a binding referendum to make the County Board chairmanship popularly elected starting in 2016.

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