McHenry County Board approves referendum for direct chairman election

WOODSTOCK – Voters will get to decide next year whether they want to elect the McHenry County Board chairman.

Board members voted 19-4 on Tuesday evening to put a referendum on the March 18 primary ballot asking voters if they want to elect the chairman to four-year terms. The committee that forwarded the resolution had amended it to two-year terms, but board members changed it back on a 15-8 vote.

The County Board presently elects the chairman from among its 24 members when new board members are seated the month after each November election. The Lake County Board does the same, but voters in Cook, DuPage and Kane counties get to directly elect their board chairmen. Will County voters elect a county executive.

If approved by McHenry County voters, they will get to popularly elect the chairman starting with the 2016 election. The chairman would in essence be a 25th member, but would not vote except to break a tie.

"We're on the verge of turning this office back over to the people," said member Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, who led an effort earlier this year to get the question on the April ballot.

But opponents said that direct election fixes something that isn't broken. While Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, has fought for years for rules to limit the chairman's powers, she said that a directly-elected chairman will become just as entrenched.

"You can say that's not going to happen, but that's the nature of the beast," Schuster said.

Member Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, immediately proposed the vote to restore the resolution's original language for a four-year term. The Management Services Committee last week amended it on a 5-2 vote.

Besides the fact that every other county elected office is to four-year terms, Gottemoller argued that two-year terms will not strengthen accountability, but limit the pool of candidates to those with the financial means to run every other year.

"Instead of accountability, I think you'll have exactly the opposite," Gottemoller said.

Michael Walkup, who proposed the amendment in committee, disagreed.

"I always favored the idea of being more accountable on a two-year cycle," said Walkup, R-Crystal Lake.

But Provenzano brought up the paradox in state law that requires that a chairman elected to a two-year term also be a member of the board. The law does not address what to do in the event that a candidate wins the chairman election but loses election to keep his or her board district seat.

No Illinois county popularly elects its county board chairman to two-year terms.

The issue of the chairman's power and incumbency has come to a head in recent years, with the eight-year reign of former Chairman Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, and a recent controversy with new Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, over appointments to the embattled McHenry County Mental Health Board.

The County Board is poised next month to vote on rule changes that would blunt the chairman's power, which prompted some to question whether Tuesday's referendum vote was premature.

Supporters have fought for years for a referendum to popularly elect the chairman, an issue that has caused board leaders and insiders more than a few political headaches.

Some County Board members pushed for a referendum after the 2010 election, and brought it up again in 2011 during the post-census redistricting process, during which county boards can go to popular election by ordinance alone. But neither idea moved forward.

That prompted state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, to file a bill in January 2012 that would force popular elections in McHenry and Lake counties. The bill got crushed, and County Board members got some laughs at Franks' expense, but they stopped laughing when Franks spearheaded a November referendum to change to a county executive form of government.

A county executive is elected every four years, but acts like an executive branch and wields significant powers because the individual runs county government's day-to-day operations. The idea so scared County Board members that they considered putting a dueling referendum on the ballot, but rejected the idea because of the voter confusion it would have caused.

While voters soundly rejected the executive referendum, it shook up opponents of popular election, especially given that the low 500-signature threshold needed to get the executive question on future ballots. Hill, shortly after becoming chairwoman in December, ordered Management Services to look into putting a referendum on the April 2013 ballot.

The committee did not make a recommendation, citing the short time schedule to get it on the ballot. Supporters of popular election got enough signatures to force a County Board meeting and a vote, which failed.

Board member Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard, alleged that direct election fixes a non-existent problem caused because Franks had a problem with Koehler.

"This thing escalated and escalated, the newspapers got involved, and board members seemed to feel they had to go along with it to justify their representation from the public," Evertsen said.

But Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry, disagreed. She said she has campaigned for years on the premise of making the chairman directly elected.

"I'm very excited. It took many years to get to this point," Salgado said.


How they voted

The McHenry County Board voted Tuesday evening, 19-4, to put a referendum on the March 2014 ballot asking if voters want to popularly elect the County Board chairman to a four-year term.

Voting yes were Nick Chirikos, D-Algonquin, Anna May Miller, R-Cary, Yvonne Barnes, R-Cary, Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, Carolyn Schofield, R-Crystal Lake, James Heisler, R-Crystal Lake, Mary McClellan, R-Holiday Hills, Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry, Sue Draffkorn, R-Wonder Lake, John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, Robert Martens Sr., R-Spring Grove, John Jung, R-Woodstock, Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, Michael Skala, R-Huntley, Michele Aavang, R-Woodstock, and Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock.

Voting no were Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard, and Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake.

The Management Services Committee had amended the resolution to a two-year term in committee, but County Board members voted, 15-8, to restore the resolution back to its original wording. Voting no were Schuster, Skala, Walkup, Barnes, Draffkorn, Evertsen, Hammerand and Kurtz.

Board member Robert Nowak, R-Cary, was absent.

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