Dems make downsizing County Board a campaign issue

"Democrats for smaller government" may sound to Republicans like an oxymoron, but shrinking the size of the McHenry County Board is going to be a key campaign issue for its Democratic candidates.

The Democratic Party of McHenry County announced that its slate intends to fight for a plan to reduce the cost of county government and increase its accountability by reducing the number of members while increasing the number of districts. The County Board now consists of 24 members, who are elected to six districts of four members each.

"Dividing the county into more districts will help ensure that all parts of the county get the representation they deserve. Reducing the number of members will save money, but it will also make each member more accountable to the voters," party Chairman Michael Bissett said in a news release.

The initiative comes at a time when the sheer number of Illinois governments and their sizes have become an issue for tax-weary voters. It also comes after a shake-up put the leadership of the McHenry County Republican Party in the hands of new members who have promised to turn the party and a legion of newly-elected precinct committeemen into an aggressive get-out-the-vote machine.

Two of the County Board's 24 members are Democrats. Both of them, Nick Chirikos in District 1, and Paula Yensen in District 5, are running for re-election. Former board member Kathleen Bergan Schmidt is running in District 3, and the party after the March primary caucused in Arne Waltmire, a former high school teacher and dispute mediator, to run in District 4.

Both Bergan Schmidt and Yensen fought to reduce the County Board's size during the redistricting process after the 2010 U.S. Census. They were joined by a handful of Republicans in an unsuccessful effort to shrink the board to 10, two-member districts for a total of 20. Chirikos was not elected until 2012.

Altering the County Board's size and structure requires a voter referendum, except during the once-a-decade redistricting process. While the McHenry County Board in 2011 rejected change, three of its fellow collar counties took advantage of the redistricting process to do so.

The Lake and Kane county boards each eliminated two board seats, bringing their totals to 21 for Lake County and 24 for Kane County, not including the board chairman. But both moves were fueled in part by preparation for one day reaching 800,000 residents, when state law caps a county board's maximum size at 18 members. Only Cook and DuPage counties have reached that limit.

The Will County Board completely overhauled its map in the name of increasing accountability. It kept a 26-member board, but went from three districts of nine members each to 13, two-member districts.

Another neighboring county board decided, like McHenry County's, that it liked things the way they are. The DeKalb County Board during 2011 redistricting soundly rejected a proposal to shrink from 24 people representing two-member districts to 18 single-member districts.

McHenry County's four-member districts are the largest of county boards in the Chicago metro area. Kane, Lake and Cook counties have single-member districts while the DuPage County Board has six, three-member districts.

Bissett said he expects to get bipartisan support for the initiative, and took a shot at some in the majority party to help make his point.

"County records show that a number of board members are chronically absent or late for meetings, yet the other members manage to get the work done without them. That's a sign that we could get by with fewer members," Bissett said.

Reform-oriented McHenry County Board members won a long-sought victory in March when voters approved a referendum to make the chairmanship popularly elected to four-year terms rather than elected from among the County Board's membership after each November election. McHenry County voters will elect the County Board chairman starting in 2016.

The County Board has had 24 members since its creation in 1972, when the new Illinois Constitution abolished county boards of supervisors ruled by township officials. It consisted of three, eight-member districts until 1992, when it went to its present structure of six, four-member districts. A failed effort was made during the 1991 redistricting process to shrink the board's size to 18 members.

What it means

The four Democratic candidates running for McHenry County Board – two incumbents and two challengers – are running on a platform of reducing the size of the body. The County Board now consists of 24 members, who are elected to six districts of four members each.

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