Candidates differ on shrinking the size of DuPage County Board
The debate over reducing the size of the DuPage County Board divides candidates for six seats in an election that will determine the political balance of power.
Some say eliminating one-third of the board's 18 seats would save the county more than $312,000 in annual salaries. Others highlight the pitfalls of a smaller board. Meanwhile, the current board scrapped a plan for an advisory ballot question that would have had voters give input on the idea.
Here's a look at where the county board candidates stand on the issue:
Republican incumbent Donald Puchalski says the board should stay the same size in the second-most populous county in the state. Each county board district encompasses a population of roughly 125,000 people.
"We're bigger than six states, and if you look at all the other collar counties, we already have the smallest county board," said Puchalski, an attorney.
Zahra Suratwala, his Democratic opponent, agreed that reducing the number of board seats would translate into less representation for residents.
"I think right now we shouldn't really be focusing on that at all," said Suratwala, an English professor at Elgin Community College.
Paula Deacon Garcia, a Lisle Democrat vying to unseat Elmhurst Republican Sean Noonan, supports downsizing the board. She was displeased the nonbinding question didn't end up on the ballot.
"With the COVID expenses that are going on and the budget as tight it is, I think it's something that we should start looking at," said Deacon Garcia, who works in a municipal building and customer service department.
Noonan, a Bloomingdale police officer, sat on a bipartisan committee of six board members studying the idea. In a 4-2 vote, the panel recommended keeping the number of seats at 18, he said. Noonan endorsed the current size.
Republican incumbent Brian Krajewski has been one of the more vocal proponents for eliminating board seats as a cost-cutting measure while the COVID-19 pandemic forces the county to rein in expenses.
"You look at counties our size nationally, many of them had five members or seven members, had a lot less members than us," said Krajewski, a CPA, attorney and former Downers Grove mayor.
Krajewski wants the next board to move forward with a referendum in the April municipal election.
"I think that's where you can separate people that are working for the benefit of the residents versus ones that are looking for a job for themselves," he said.
Gail Cabala-Lowry, a Democrat from Downers Grove, opposes a reduction, calling for more voices and opinions on the panel.
"I'm looking at this as a voter and not a potential board member," the architect said. "As a voter, if we're reducing the representation, I don't want to do that."
Tim Elliott, a Glen Ellyn Republican running for his second term, voted in favor of placing a question on the ballot, but with reservations.
"If the point of that is to save money, the better way to do that is just to hold people accountable to their campaign promises," Elliott said. "Because it really frosts me that every year people run for the county board, and they say the county board is overpaid and that they won't take the benefits, and every year they take the benefits once they get elected."
The attorney has sought to eliminate health and dental insurance for board members. Currently, individual members can sign up to receive health and dental insurance through the county.
"It's not fair that elected, part-time elected politicians take taxpayer-funded benefits to the tune of $170,000 a year to the taxpayers, when we all know that part-time workers in the private sector don't get those benefits," Elliott said.
Democratic challenger Lynn LaPlante said an 18-member board allows for diversity of candidates.
"We need to build a bigger table instead of trying to make it smaller," said LaPlante, a violist from Glen Ellyn.
She added that the issue of health benefits "has already been decided." The board's finance committee last spring rejected Elliott's proposal to end the perk.
With no incumbent in the race, two Naperville candidates are squaring off to fill the seat.
Democrat Amy Chavez said the county should continue providing benefits to bring more professional diversity to a board now made up of "all lawyers and business professionals."
"We really have to have citizen representation, and if we want to have that from a diverse group of people, then I think we need to spread out the duties," said Chavez, a former sales executive. "We know how critically important benefits are to giving people a safety net, and if we want to have people who truly represent our district serving ... it can't just be available to those that have deep pockets."
Republican Kevin Coyne, a Naperville city councilman, strongly supports a board reduction, saying the board pays its members "exceedingly well."
"Due to the very heavy tax burden that is placed on our residents, which will only be worsened by the great financial damage caused by COVID and ever-mounting pension obligations, we need to take advantage of attainable cost savings," he said.
A 10-year incumbent, Wheaton Republican Robert Larsen would rather cut member salaries to save costs.
"Do what I did. Don't take the pension. Don't take the health care benefits," the attorney said.
Larsen was willing to let voters weigh in on the concept of a board reduction. He also said the position should remain part-time because he wants members with business backgrounds who can "still be tied into the community and not just be full-time politicians."
Democrat Greg Schwarze, a Carol Stream village trustee and firefighter, expressed disappointment that voters didn't get a say on the matter, but he also cautioned against a board reduction.
"There are other ways of saving that money," Schwarze said. "Cutting it down from 18 to 12, the disadvantage in that: Fewer people are making more decisions for more people. There's a little bit too much power I think in that."