Committee nixes McHenry County Board restructuring

WOODSTOCK – A committee sees no need to recommend altering the number of McHenry County Board members and districts after the next U.S. Census.

The second meeting of the Reorganization Committee will be its last, as members concluded that the County Board’s structure is adequate, and that talk of changing it is at the very least premature, with the next opportunity to do so seven years and four elections away. Thursday’s meeting comprised just under half of the board.

“The majority of members felt that we are in pretty good shape as to where they are ... we’re not hearing an outcry from the public as to, ‘There’s too many board members,’ ” said committee Chairwoman Carolyn Schofield, R-Crystal Lake.

The opinion of the committee, shared since its inaugural July meeting, was that the entire debate has been politically driven by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who in recent years has taken aim at the body’s size and structure.

The McHenry County Board is made up of 24 members representing six four-member districts. The last major change came after the 1990 U.S. Census, when board members went from three districts of eight members each to its current configuration.

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 – the next opportunity county boards will have to alter their sizes will be after the 2020 Census for the 2022 election.

While the County Board after the 2010 Census chose not to deviate from its longtime structure, other collar counties did.

Lake and Kane counties each shrank by two to 21 and 24 members, respectively. Will County shrank by one to 26 members, but overhauled its districts – it went from three large districts of nine members each to 13, two-member districts.

Winnebago County, which contains Rockford, slashed its size after the 2010 Census from 28 members to 20. DuPage downsized after the 2000 Census from 24 to its current 18 to comply with state law, which caps county boards to 18 members for counties other than Cook with more than 800,000 residents.

A minority on the County Board after the 2010 Census unsuccessfully pushed to shrink to 20 members and change to districts of two members each, which they argued would increase accountability.

The McHenry County Board falls in the median of board size compared to the 12 largest counties besides Cook, according to a chart prepared for the committee by county staff. But McHenry County is the odd county out with four-member districts. DuPage County has three-member districts, three others have two-member districts and the remaining seven have single-member districts.

The largest counties by population besides Cook make up the suburbs of Chicago and St. Louis, and contain the cities of Rockford, Peoria, Urbana-Champaign, Springfield and Bloomington-Normal.

The debate over the McHenry County Board’s size was re-energized in June when Franks 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, board Chairman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, felt the debate was one worth having.

It was Franks’ success on one front – pushing for popular election of the county board chairman – that committee members cited Thursday among their reasons for hesitating to change anything now.

Voters in the March primary approved a referendum to elect the chairman every four years, ending the practice of the board electing the chairman themselves every two years. Part of the motivation for the County Board placing the question on the ballot was Franks’ unsuccessful pushing of a 2012 referendum to replace the chairman with a county executive form of government.

Committee members argued that making a decision today on its size and structure for the 2022 election would be silly, given future turnover and the unknown political changes starting in 2016 when the chairman is elected by the voters. Every collar county but Lake popularly elects the board chairman, but Will County voters elect a county executive.

Committee members also rejected the argument that shrinking the size of the County Board would result in cost savings to a $250 million county budget as a “fallacy.” The chart by county staff shows the $21,000 salary for County Board members, excluding benefits, in the median for comparably-sized counties.

“If we reduce the number of board members, it’s not going to reduce the financial end of it. If you reduce the size, it’s going to put more work on those remaining,” Schofield said.

The committee will draw up a report on its findings and submit them to the full board at a later date, Schofield said.

The Democratic Party of McHenry County, which holds two seats on the County Board, have made shrinking the board’s size a core issue for the 2014 election.

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