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Changing Faces: Minorities underrepresented in McHenry County municipal bodies

Demographic shifts over the last 14 years provide clues to what McHenry County is going to look like in the future. We should expect to be older and more diverse. How well are we situated for the gradually changing population?

This is the fifth part in our five-part Changing Faces series looking at U.S. Census and other data and an examination of how the housing industry, social services, education and local government is adjusting to changing demographics.

The face of McHenry County might be changing, but the bodies behind the important decisions of each city or village have yet to reflect that.

In looking at city councils and village boards throughout the county, it's clear white residents make up the majority of each one – not surprising considering 90.1 percent of McHenry County's population is white, according to 2010 census data.

Still, diversity in local voting bodies is scarce even in cities and villages with growing minority populations. Census data show the largest minority population in virtually all of the observed municipalities to be those of Latino descent.

In Harvard, nearly half – 45.2 percent – of the city's residents fit into that category, yet Mexican-American Ward 3 Alderman Raul Meza is the lone non-white councilman for the city.

In Woodstock, which has a Latino population of 23.6 percent, there are no racial or ethnic minorities sitting on the City Council, and the same goes for Marengo (15.3 percent Latino population), McHenry (12.8 percent), Crystal Lake (11.7 percent), Cary (8.9 percent), Huntley (7.7 percent) and Johnsburg (3.4 percent), officials from each municipality said.

While racial or ethnic diversity isn't necessarily a requisite for a functional and dependable voting body, it's one way to bring a new perspective, said Denise Barreto, the only black trustee on the Lake in the Hills Village Board.

Barreto said when she moved into the village, she was well aware that a minority presence was lacking. Lake in the Hills has a Latino population of 11.6 percent, and a black population of 2 percent.

"Let's face it, McHenry County isn't exactly a cornucopia of diversity," she said, adding tthat he lack of diversity on village boards and councils is undeniable, for both racial minorities and women.

"I realized right away there's a gaping gender imbalance going on," Barreto said. "We haven't even gotten it right there yet, and when you throw in people of color, it's just abysmal."

While Meza acknowledged the importance that a city council be representative of the people it serves, he said his ethnicity hasn't necessarily come into play when making decisions in Harvard.

"I think it's 50/50," Meza said. "You still have to represent everyone. You still have to do your best. Any ordinance we may have, it's not like it's in favor of someone or someone's ethnicity. It's for everyone."

Newly elected McHenry County Board member Chuck Wheeler, R-McHenry, shared similar sentiments, but added he was proud to be the first black man to be elected to the board.

Collectively, McHenry County has a black population of 1.1 percent and a Latino population of 11.4 percent.

Serving as the only racial minority on the 24-person board, Wheeler said his race had nothing to do with why he ran.

"What was I looking to do was to put a new face on the Republican Party; to bring it back closer to resident regardless of the color of their skin," he said. "Lower taxes, less government, better services for their family and friends. That's why I was running."

The county's Republican Party, for which Wheeler now serves as treasurer, is working on outreach to include a wider range of people, too, he said.

"People from diverse backgrounds, diverse occupations, as well as diverse ethnicities," Wheeler said. "But we're not just focusing on [ethnicities]. More importantly, we're focusing on diversity of economics, jobs."

Woodstock Mayor Brian Sager said he didn't believe the Woodstock City Council has ever included a non-white minority member. However, he said there is minority representation on certain commissions that serve the city.

With more diversity coming into Woodstock – Sager said Latino, black, Asian and Eastern European populations have been on the rise – the city's cultural diversity and social awareness commission has been working toward more inclusivity in the city's activities, in general.

Lead commissioner Laurie Crain said primary efforts include a program to help people through the citizenship process, but building relationships and getting people involved in the community likely will be an extension of the commission's work.

"Trying to get people into citizenship allows them the ability to get more involved," Crain said. "As we start working with families, hopefully offering ways to connect with the government in positive ways will encourage them to get involved."

In regard to getting new faces on a given board or council, many elected officials said it's an issue that goes beyond ethnicity and race. Meza said it's not specifically minorities who aren't involved in Harvard's local government.

"I think in general, new people don't get involved with their town's activities," he said, pointing out that he was born and raised in Harvard. "That goes for everyone, not just minorities."

In Marengo, Mayor Donald Lockhart built off that, saying it's not a lack of acceptance that keeps the voting bodies devoid of racial or ethnic diversity, but a lack of familiarity as newer populations are moving into the area. While some candidates have years' worth of connections and support built up, minorities migrating to the area more recently may not.

Chalen Daigle, executive director of the McHenry County Council of Governments, said she suspects as the demographics continue to change, and it appears they will, more diverse representation will come with time.

"I think minorities need a strong voice and it matters if they feel they're not represented the way they should be," Daigle said. "But change is difficult sometimes. It takes time to change things that have been running a certain way for so long."

Part 1: What's changing about the population of McHenry County and how are we adjusting to population needs?

Part 2: How have social service agencies been changing delivery models and what needs are they trying to fill?

Part 3: Is the housing market well suited for a population that's getting older?

Part 4: What are local educators doing to give students who aren't native English speakers the best chance to succeed?

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