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Future County Board Governor?

Lawmaker is drafting bill to empower McHenry County Board chairman

McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks introduces U.S. Rep. Sean Casten (right) during a town hall meeting about the government shutdown held at the Algonquin Village Hall on Jan. 22 in Algonquin.
McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks introduces U.S. Rep. Sean Casten (right) during a town hall meeting about the government shutdown held at the Algonquin Village Hall on Jan. 22 in Algonquin.

State Rep. David McSweeney is drafting a bill that would give the McHenry County Board chairman authority to veto line items in proposed budgets and explicitly decide whether appropriated money is spent – and board representatives are concerned the legislation would effectively transform the county chairman into a county governor.

McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, said the powers built into the bill are cost-saving tools the chairman can use to relieve the tax burden crushing local residents, but county board members contend such legislation would make the chairman too powerful and put him in an executive role taxpayers voted against years ago.

“This bill is simply a way to circumvent the will of the public through Springfield,” said Jeff Thorsen, R-District 2. “That’s just wrong. It’s wrong from the core.”

To McSweeney, only good could come from empowering the chairman.

“By giving additional authority [to the chairman] to save money,” McSweeney said, “I think that’s going to be good for taxpayers.”

Like McSweeney’s township abolishment bill, the legislation is centered on McHenry County. In an interview with the Northwest Herald, the lawmaker shared some of the pillars of his proposal.

A provision would give the county board chairman veto power to reject line items in proposed budgets. An override would require a three-fifths majority of board members, McSweeney said.

Under Illinois law, the county board chairman, under the current system, has limited powers above other board members. The chairman sets the agenda for county board meetings, runs the meetings and assigns committee chairmanships with the consent of the full board. The chairman also serves as the board’s liaison to other local, regional and state governments, giving him more political muscle.

McSweeney’s bill would give “explicit authority” to the chairman to choose not to spend money for budget line items appropriated by the county board.

“My understanding is that the McHenry County chairman has basic and implicit authority not to spend appropriated money,” McSweeney said. “I want to make it crystal clear and explicitly strengthen the authority of the chairman not to spend appropriated money.”

The lawmaker said he hopes the powers included in his bill incentivizes the chairman to cut costs.

“I’m also not convinced the understood authority has been used a lot,” McSweeney said. “My intent is to make it explicitly clear that the chairman has the authority and thereby incentivize the chairman to use it.”

To District 6 representative Jim Kearns, that additional authority would be good for one person: Franks.

“It’s a political weapon for Jack,” Kearns said. “That makes him an executive form of government. The people did not elect him for that.” 

On Nov. 6, 2012, McHenry County voters at the polls found this question on the ballot:

“Shall the County of McHenry adopt the County Executive Form of Government and elect not to become a home rule unit?”

If a majority of voters picked “yes,” the county would have adopted an executive form of government and empowered a county executive to draft the annual budget, make hiring and firing recommendations, and have veto power over county board votes.

In short, a majority “yes” at the polls would have given a county executive a lot more authority than the current county board chairman has.

When the votes were tallied in that 2012 election, results revealed a majority voters (64 percent) were against adopting an executive form of government, and the referendum died.

“This undoes what the electors chose not to have,” Kearns said. “They don’t want a Mike Madigan.”

Another provision of the bill, McSweeney said, would allow the chairman to rebate money to taxpayers from any county surplus he wishes without going through the full board for approval.

That slice of the bill makes county board members suspicious McSweeney is working with Franks to develop the bill behind the scenes.

The power of that provision runs tandem with current events now unfolding in McHenry County: Franks on Thursday announced he is angling to refund $15 million from Valley Hi Nursing Home’s $40 million reserve to residents.

“He’s trying to make Jack powerful,” Kearns said. “He must be talking to someone he’s trying to give power to.”

Franks declined to comment until he reads McSweeney’s bill.

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