Prompted by Lawlor case, Lake County Board might seek power to remove leaders

Unable to remove Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor from that post last year despite a police investigation into his conduct, county commissioners are considering asking state lawmakers to give them the power to unseat their leader.

The board could decide Tuesday to add such a request to the state legislative proposals it's supporting or actively pursuing.

The board's legislative committee approved the proposal this week.

Board Chairwoman Sandy Hart, who succeeded Lawlor as the panel's leader in December, is championing the change.

"This is about putting a process in place to remove appointed officials if they don't perform to the expectations of the people who appointed them," said Hart, a Lake Bluff Democrat. "It seems a very basic tenet of good government."

Citing treatment for an unspecified drug addiction he said affected his finances, Lawlor began a leave of absence last summer. Documents subsequently reviewed by the Daily Herald revealed the Vernon Hills Republican had used his county credit card to make personal purchases totaling thousands of dollars.

Illinois State Police continue to investigate Lawlor's activities.

Lawlor has repaid the county for the charges he identified as personal. But he never returned to work and left elected office when his term ended in December. Until that happened, he continued collecting a salary and other taxpayer-funded benefits.

The county board subsequently eliminated its members' credit cards.

Unlike in neighboring McHenry County, Lake County's chairman is appointed by the board from its members, not directly by voters.

After Lawlor's actions were discovered, county commissioners publicly discussed if they had the power to remove him as chairman. They were told they didn't.

That needs to be rectified, Hart said.

"It's just common sense," she said. "The board gets to make the appointment, (and) the board should get to remove the appointment."

Instead of creating a list of specific misdeeds that would qualify a chairman or chairwoman for removal, Hart favors allowing commissioners to depose their leader simply if they are unhappy with that official's performance.

"If the board loses confidence in the chair, it is critical that the board be given the authority to rectify the situation and appoint a new board chair," Hart said.

Republican state Sen. Chuck Weaver of Peoria proposed such a change in 2017, but his legislation never came up for a vote.

Under Weaver's plan, a county board that chooses its leader could unseat that official "with or without cause" if at least four-fifths of the panel supports the move. The board would elect a new chairman at its next scheduled meeting.

Hart likes that procedure.

So does veteran board member Steve Carlson. A Gurnee Republican, Carlson said he and other commissioners were "frustrated" by their inability to remove Lawlor as chairman last year.

"We talked about it a lot, and there was nothing we could do about it," he said.

Carlson thinks the board should go further and seek the legal ability to remove a member if needed.

"It shouldn't be easy, but it should be possible," Carlson said of both maneuvers.

Hart doesn't mind that, if the law changes, she'd be the first board leader eligible for removal.

"It is important to me that the people who appointed me have the ability to remove me from that appointment," she said.

County board member Adam Didech, a Buffalo Grove Democrat who took office in December, called Hart's advocacy of the proposal "an impressive and rare example of a leader asking for less power."

The board will discuss the plan during a committee-of-the-whole meeting set for 8:30 a.m. Friday at the county central permit facility, 500 W. Winchester Road, Libertyville.

A vote could occur when the board meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday, at the county government building in Waukegan.

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Sandy Hart
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