WOODSTOCK – McHenry County Board members’ ability to sound off on whatever is on their minds at the end of their full meetings will be curtailed under a proposed rule change working its way through committee.
While supporters call it a needed change to increase efficiency and promote civility they say has become too lacking to ignore, at least one opponent calls it an effort to muzzle several of the County Board’s more vocal members, especially in the wake of a contentious discussion over alleged nepotism in county government hiring.
The proposed change to County Board rules would eliminate the members’ comments portion of the meeting and add a vote at the start of the meeting to adopt the agenda. Board members wanting to discuss a particular subject would have to move to add it to the agenda, which would then be approved by a simple majority. A majority of the Management Services Committee on Monday morning agreed to bring the changes up for a vote upon complete review of board rules, which the committee does after every November election.
Committee Vice Chairman Mike Skala, R-Huntley, tried to make this change during the last rules review in 2012 and is making another try now.
“I brought this up because, in my time on the board, members’ comments have been, more often than not, platforms for board members to make statements that are not germane to county business,” Skala said.
But committee member Mike Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, disagrees. He calls the proposed change an attempt to marginalize his voice and several others, pointing to his remarks at the last full County Board meeting about his concerns over the decision by new County Clerk Mary McClellan to hire her husband for a position.
“I think, instead of addressing the problem, we’re trying to kill the messenger – that’s the approach,” Walkup said.
Walkup was one of several board members who took aim at the hiring during members’ comments, as did retired Crystal Lake businessman Joe Alger, who brought it up during public comment at the start of the Feb. 17 meeting. McClellan was present at the meeting because it is the job of the county clerk at full County Board meetings to take the minutes and tally votes.
While the County Board sets the budgets and salaries for countywide elected offices, such as county clerk, it does not have the power under state law to dictate who they can or cannot hire.
Skala and committee Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, said the proposed rule change addresses a problem that has been brewing for some time, and it is not a knee-jerk reaction to what they called inappropriate and over-the-top comments aimed at McClellan.
Hill, who served one term as County Board chairwoman between 2012 and 2014, said that the board minority she tried to empower by giving them more of a voice used it to all but hijack meetings. Her concern has been echoed privately by other board members.
“I think they abused that minority voice. I tried to give them that voice, everybody knows that, but instead of working as a team, they abused it,” Hill said.
Committee member Anna May Miller, R-Cary, also supports the recommended changes. Her idea had been to limit members’ comments to 3 minutes, the same limit members of the public have during their comment period. She said her concern is keeping meetings from going on for too long and from getting personal.
Miller admitted she did not appreciate a previous members’ comment by Walkup in which he pointed out she works as the administrative assistant for her husband, longtime Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner Bob Miller. While Walkup did not call her by name, she later confronted him about it.
“I’m perfectly comfortable having a conversation about nepotism, but that conversation shouldn’t be so uncivil. He makes those issues so personal, and then it’s hard to talk about it with any civility,” Miller said.
But while Skala and Hill said the proposed change does not silence board members, Walkup disagreed. He said the ability to add a discussion item to the agenda would be contingent on whether a majority – at least 13 members if all 24 are present – wants the item discussed, or has a problem with the board member wanting to talk about it.
“If you try to put a [discussion] item not on the agenda, and the majority opposes it, you get shot down,” Walkup said.
Miller at Monday’s meeting submitted several proposed rule changes that would forbid people during public comment from statements or actions considered rude, vulgar or uncivil, and give the assistant state’s attorney acting as meeting parliamentarian the ability to ask violators to leave. But because such a rule would most likely not survive a constitutional challenge, the committee will instead consider adding a sign near the public comment sign-in sheet asking people not to engage in said behavior.
The committee is expected to finish its review of the rules over its next several meetings, and will make recommendations for the full County Board to deliberate. The biggest issue the committee has to tackle is amending the rules to account for the board chairman being popularly elected starting in 2016.