Editorial: Let Lake County voters decide how chairman is selected

If Donald Trump's election as president told us anything, it's that voters have a lot of ideas and concerns about the size and role of government, and they want to have a voice. That applies to all levels, and it is especially important when significant changes are proposed - such as a new bill in Springfield that calls for the Lake County Board chairman to be elected, rather than appointed.

The proposal by state Sen. Terry Link is a reasonable topic for discussion, but in the spirit of inclusive debate, we agree with Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor that it should be amended to allow voters to decide in a referendum if they favor such a concept.

"Voters should be able to say what they want, rather than Springfield dictating what they need," Lawlor told our Russell Lissau this week.

Lawlor, who has been the county board chairman since 2012, said he wants to ask voters on the 2018 ballot if the county board chairman should be elected. He said he also would ask county voters if the 21-member county board should be reduced by at least four commissioners and if board districts should be redrawn after the 2020 census using an independent, nonpartisan mapping process. He acknowledged those moves would be a "tectonic shift" in how Lake County government is run.

We like the direction, even if we have some reservations about the move to an elected county board chairman - it would add another layer of elected government, one that is high profile and likely will result in an expensive campaign. Still, those are implications voters will have to weigh in deciding such a package of referendum questions.

Such a move would bring Lake County in line with other suburban county boards. Lake County is the only suburban county where the chairman is selected by its members rather than voters at large. The chairmen of the Cook, DuPage, Kane, McHenry and Will county boards are chosen by voters.

McHenry County switched to that system last year, and in November, voters elected Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat and proponent of the change. All reservations about the Link proposal aside, it's hard to imagine the heavily Republican-dominated McHenry board would ever have given county voters a Democratic chairman.

Link, a Vernon Hills Democrat, said he proposed the change for Lake County about a decade ago but it didn't gain traction. He believes voters should decide who leads the county board and is open to amending his bill as Lawlor has suggested.

As Link's bill awaits discussion and a vote in Springfield, Lawlor will bring the idea to a county board committee to debate its merits this month. With county board chairmen becoming increasingly powerful, it makes sense to let voters decide how much of a direct voice they want in determining who holds the position.

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