McHenry County chairman race a battle of two reformers

Two self-proclaimed reformers are duking it out to become McHenry County's first elected county board chairman.

Democrat Jack Franks calls for a restructuring of what he calls a corrupt county government — an approach demonstrated earlier this year when his whistle-blowing led to an investigation into county board members' eligibility for pensions. In the eyes of Republican Michael Walkup, the chairman should collaborate with board members and chip away at the tax levy. And play well with others.

“I think someone who's on the board and has a working relationship with the board has a better chance of (creating change) than somebody that's coming from the outside with a hostile attitude,” Walkup said when he and Franks met with the Daily Herald editorial board.

“I'm not hostile,” Franks replied.

Walkup: “You tried to indict the county board. I'd call that hostile.”

Franks: “If you want to call that hostile, you can. But I'm protecting taxpayers. I'll be that person every day.”

That perhaps sums up the conflict between Franks, somewhat of a renegade Democrat who is leaving the state legislature to run for the county spot, and Walkup, a Republican county board member who is being put in the unusual position of being characterized as a tax-and-spend politician.

The issue at hand was Franks' campaign to end the county board's enrollment in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund unless members could prove they worked their required 1,000 hours.

While some board members accused Franks of waging a “political witch hunt,” Walkup was criticized for urging his peers to plead the Fifth Amendment when IMRF officials asked them to turn over proof of their time spent on county business.

The list of accusations made against each candidate goes on in a race considered both historic and key in county politics, Republican Party Chairwoman Sandra Salgado said.

“This race is pretty pivotal for McHenry County,” she said. “I'm excited because this person could really join the leadership team and have a ton of impact on constituents and really be accountable.”

Bully pulpit

Two years ago, residents voted to make the board chairman a countywide, elected position. Up to now, the person filling that role had been appointed by board members.

The chairman won't get a vote, but he will set agendas and lead meetings, allowing him to potentially set the tone of the entire county board, political leaders say.

For Mike Skala, a District 5 member up for re-election, the characteristics of an ideal chairman remains the same: “A leader who is strong, fair and can represent the county in important meetings.”

Skala's benign comment was a rarity among county officials: Requests for comment to 15 other county board members and county Administrator Peter Austin were either denied or went unanswered.

Walkup, 67, who has served one term on the board, wants to carry out the county's plan to keep taxes low and government small, Salgado said, whereas Franks, 53, has spent years in the General Assembly in a state that overspends and tries to create more bureaucracy.

While denying Franks' accusations that the county is corrupt, she also questioned his motives.

“I'd be really nervous about someone coming in and blowing smoke in the mirror and making a mess of McHenry County for their own personal agenda,” Salgado said.

But Michael Bissett, chairman for the county's Democratic Party, said Franks was often an outlier in the state legislature, fighting against high taxes and for consolidation. Franks, he said, is a breath of fresh air who could fix the county's “systematic problems,” for which he blames the all-Republican county board.

That's exactly what Franks intends to do: Take on a dynamic role and use the position as a bully pulpit.

“That's why I'm giving up a seat in the House of Representatives,” Franks said. “I see an opportunity to change our structure of government and prove the government can work for the taxpayers again.”

Though Walkup also sees room for change, he emphasizes he'll collaborate with other county officials. That, he says, would be a struggle for Franks, based on his contentious history with the board.

But despite the GOP's county board dominance, Bissett said he knows plenty of Republicans, including several board members, who would prefer Franks' approach.

“They think he's going to be able to get the board working in a different way,” Bissett said.

Both reformers?

Both candidates have gained their share of critics this election season, several of whom have spoken out on social media or in Daily Herald letters to the editor. Salgado, for example, was among those suggesting a Democratic county leader would “open the door to Chicago politics.”

Walkup, on the other hand, has been widely criticized for running for re-election for a District 3 seat in addition to seeking the chairmanship.

Under state law, the size of McHenry County prohibits an elected chairman from voting, even to break ties. Walkup says having both roles would allow him to lead the board and weigh in on various issues with a vote. Bissett said that goes against the intent of the voter-backed referendum proposal.

Perhaps Walkup's biggest detractor, though, is Franks, who carried poster boards into a Daily Herald endorsement interview painting his opponent as a waster of taxpayers' money.

Franks pointed to Walkup's unsuccessful attempt years ago to create a special water administration that would have had taxing authority — an action Walkup defended by saying it would have helped farmers access water.

Franks also criticized Walkup for voting in favor of a small tax levy increase while on the Crystal Lake Park District board. But Walkup argued almost all governing bodies annually approve such an increase to allow for a cost of living adjustment.

The McHenry County Board, he said, has opted against taking those hikes for the past four years.

“What we're doing is we're setting a positive example for other governments,” Walkup said. “That's the way to do things.”

But in the end, the candidates say their stances on many issues are not that far apart. Both characterize themselves as fiscal conservatives, both oppose the county's practice of hiring lobbyists on the taxpayers' dime, both want to downsize the county board and restructure committees.

“I'm a reformer. He's a reformer,” Walkup said. “The question is, who can get the reforms done?”

Where candidates stand on issues

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