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updated: 10/24/2012 11:23 AM

McHenry County vote could appoint a 'czar'

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Editor's Note: In a conversation after this article ran, Jacqueline Byers, director of research for the National Association of Counties, tempered her original statement that the current trend across the nation is for counties to change to an executive form of government. The story was changed to reflect Byers' clarification that the trend is for counties to look at the executive form of government when they are considering change.

By Elena Ferrarin

In less than three weeks, McHenry County voters will choose whether they want a county executive form of government, a decision that will have long-term ramifications and which -- depending on whom you listen to -- could represent either a grave mistake or a positive change.

If voters endorse the idea, they then would elect a county executive, beginning with the 2014 primaries. The county executive would run the day-to-day operations of the county, have the authority to hire and fire staff, and the power to veto decisions by the county board. The county board will still have 24 members and a board chairman.

McHenry County Board members have been vocal in their opposition to a county executive, a position they say wields too much power, and would add an unnecessary and expensive layer of government in McHenry County.

County Board Chairman Ken Koehler said he is so opposed to the idea of a county executive that he'll probably move out of the county if that happens.

"The powers that the county executives have under the state of Illinois, it's a ton of power. The word 'czar' has been used (to describe it). You would be putting one person in charge for four years," he said.

McHenry County must be run by a professional administrator, Koehler said.

County Administrator Peter Austin was appointed by the county board in 2005; the position required 10 years of progressive experience and a master's in public administration or business administration.

"We've got one of the finest (county administrators) in the United States. The county is a quarter-billion-dollar business, you can't just have anybody run it," Koehler said.

While most board hopefuls running in the November election also say they don't want a county executive, one exception is District 4 candidate Mary Margaret Maule.

"There is a high level of rhetoric in this," she said. "They say it's a 'czar' and it's a concentration of power. But I believe that with a county chairman who's been in the same position for eight years, it's the same level of power, the same level of influence. At the end of the day, I haven't heard a compelling reason why this is such a negative."

That's been the same argument put forward by state Rep. Jack Franks, who gathered enough signatures this summer to put the referendum question on the ballot.

Franks has been vocal in his criticism of Koehler, and argues that a county executive would add accountability to county government.

Maule used to work as a legislative liaison for Franks until eight years ago, but said that has no bearing on her position.

"I don't do Jack's bidding," she said.

Counties started shifting to more professional forms of government at the turn of the 20th Century, said Kim Nelson, an assistant professor in the division of public administration at Northern Illinois University. "It tended to remove machine politics from the system," she said.

Nelson advocates professionals at the helm of counties.

"A major U.S. company usually hires someone with an MBA; it wouldn't hire an attorney to be CEO," she said. "(Executives can have) no experience in government, no knowledge of government finance, no knowledge of government programming to do the day-to-day operations of a government. That's what we're asking when we're asking a county executive to do that."

The current trend across the nation is for counties to look at the executive form of government when they are considering change, said Jacqueline Byers, director of research for the National Association of Counties, based in Washington, D.C. The executive form of government is present in about 800 counties out of more than 3,000 nationwide, she said.

An executive county government runs much like the federal government and its executive, legislative and judicial branches, she said. With a county executive, the county board's role becomes largely legislative, in charge of approving ordinances and the budget.

Unlike a county administrator, who is hired and fired by the board, county executives are accountable to voters every four years, she said.

"The public sees someone outside of the political arena run the administrative part of government without being subjected to the will of the board," she said.

However, not all counties have partisan elections like McHenry County, she said. "Both (forms of county government) have strengths and have weakness."

County executives in Illinois are largely the same as county mayors in Utah, parish presidents in Louisiana, and judge executives in Kentucky, said Mike Griffin, executive director of County Executives of America.

Among Illinois' 102 counties, Will County has an executive, and Cook County has much the same in its county board president, Griffin said. More than half of the U.S. population lives in counties with such forms of government, he added.

A county executive in McHenry County would have veto power, which not all county executives have, Griffin said. However, the county board could override any veto with a three-fifths majority vote. "Veto power is a big power, but it's never absolute," Griffin said.

Voters who choose a county executive want more efficiency and accountability, Griffin said.

"Who is the county administrator accountable to? The board. And the board members represent their districts and don't vote unanimously. It's not the countywide interest that is being represented, " Griffin said.

But elected executives might not have the necessary skills to run a county like administrators, who are apolitical and not swayed by interests, said Lake County Administrator Barry Burton, president of the Metropolitan Managers Association.

"You need strong elected leadership on any county board, you need to have vision," he said. "However, you also want someone to lead the staff and run the day-to-day operation."

County executives add a tremendous expense to county government, Will County Board Chairman Jim Moustis said.

"It's just not a very good form of government," he said. "In Will County we pretty much have learned to work within the system."

It's better to have a county board chairman elected at large, or a professional county administrator, he said.

Will County Executive Larry Walsh did not return several requests for comment.

Joseph Mikan, who served as Will County executive from 2000 to 2004, agreed that the county executive's office comes with added expenses.

"The county board has its own staff for day-to-day administrative and activities. The executive also has its own staff -- a secretary, legal counsel, finance people, administrative staff," he said. "There is a lot of duplication. Those salaries aren't $25,000, they are $80,000 or $90,000, so when you start adding those up ..."

However, Mikan believes Will County has been well-served by the office.

"I was part of the system, I enjoyed it, and I think it's working in Will County," he said. "That doesn't mean it's for everybody."

Byers, from the National Association of Counties, urges voters to think carefully about the choice, including why the McHenry County referendum is on the ballot.

"You don't make changes to your charter based on personality. Who knows when you're going to be able to change it again. It's an interesting thing -- personality-driven changes usually come back to bite you," she said.

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