What restricting powers of McHenry County Board chairman could look like

 
 
Updated 10/14/2020 5:30 PM

Illinois law leaves the question of how much power county chairmans should have up to each county to decide, a question that has become increasingly relevant as the relationship between the McHenry County Board and its chairman has become strained.

The predominately Republican McHenry County Board has taken steps to limit the power and influence of its county board chairman, Democrat Jack Franks, over the four years since he became the county's first generally elected chairman.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

While board members have said that efforts to limit and define Franks' powers were bound to occur as the board fleshed out the new structure of an elected instead of appointed chairman, Franks attributed the struggles to retaliatory partisan politics.

"When I don't play along ... well then they have to curtail my powers," he said. "Would they restrict a Republican who they agreed with?"

This idea of restricting, or expanding, the powers of a county board chairman has played out differently across Illinois counties with the most extreme example being Rockford's Winnebago County, where the board chairman went from serving in an executive position to being reduced to little more than a figurehead.

The Winnebago County Board passed an ordinance in 1992 opting for its own unique version of a county executive position, said Frank Haney, the current chairman there.

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Under their original model, the chairman presided over the board in a way that is more like the relationship between a mayor and a municipal board rather than the parliamentary style of government that McHenry County uses. Unlike other county executives, although, the Winnebago County chairman did not have full veto power over the board.

Haney, a Republican, was elected in 2016 as an outspoken reformist, he said. Shortly thereafter, the Winnebago County Board began passing a series of measures that slowly stripped him of his authorities as chairman, a struggle which culminated in him filing a lawsuit against members last year, he said.

"I'm basically an outside lobbyist at this point, but I'm paid by government," Haney said. "It's hard to explain what the job is now because there's no functional authority left in it to do anything other than gavel in a meeting."

"If that's the direction that anybody's going in, any local government, it's going to make good government much more difficult and it really gives the middle finger to the voters," he added.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

While nothing this extreme has happened in McHenry County, Haney's situation shows how fluid and open to change the role of the board chairman is in the absence of a clear definition laid out in statute.

In a special meeting at the end of August, McHenry County Board members passed amendments to the County Board rules that completely removed the chairman from the process of organizing the board's committees, which is traditionally one of the role's main responsibilities.

County board member and former Chairman Joseph Gottemoller, a Crystal Lake Republican, said the change was merited because Franks too often had used his power to set meeting agendas in order to "circumvent the committee process."

Committee placements and chairmanships are decided in a special committee after each election. The changes, which take effect after the Nov. 3 election, mean that the board chairman will no longer take part in that special committee.

"It completely breaks the chairman's authority," Gottemoller said. "It has a tremendous impact."

"It's ridiculous and it makes no sense," Franks said. "That's what it is for now. That may change. Perhaps there needs to be a legislative remedy."

Language also was added so that many of the rules the board is bound by also will explicitly apply to the office of the board chairman, dispelling another potential source of confusion. These rules address things such as campaign ethics, conflicts of interest and the board's code of honor.

The amendments also codified the county's budget process after some board members felt that Franks was trying to exert too much control over the budget process.

Regardless of this change, Franks said he does not worry about a situation similar to that of Winnebago County occurring in McHenry County.

"You never know, it depends on who gets elected, but I don't think that's going to happen," he said. "I think reasonable people will get elected, and we'll deal with it reasonably."

If the board does go the way of Winnebago County, Franks said he feels confidently that the county's taxpayers would respond by calling for a referendum on whether the county should move to county executive form of government.

In 2012, Franks led the effort to get a referendum placed on the ballot asking voters about switching to an executive position, which would have given the chairman veto power over the board. The referendum failed and Franks has since said that it was intended only to pressure the board into approving the 2014 referendum on an elected board chairman.

"If [the board is] going to say, 'We want to go backwards and we're not going to allow the chairman to do anything,' ... [voters] are not going to want to go backwards," Franks said. "The genie is out of the bottle, and people are really happy with how it is working for them."

This pendulum swing in the way of expanding the board chairman's powers is opposed by many members of the board as well as Franks' opponent in the race for chairman this November, Republican newcomer Mike Buehler.

"I think what the board is getting at is that they don't want the chairman to be ruling over the board as one person, that they want the voice of the board to be heard," Buehler said. "The chairman is one voice of many."

Having a county executive would greatly reduce the board's ability to serve as a check and balance on the executive arm of county government, board member Carolyn Schofield said. County executive duties are more clearly established by state statute, meaning they cannot be changed as easily from county to county.

"I feel that it gives too much power to one individual that could use abuse or misuse the office," Schofield said in a statement on Tuesday.

If elected, Buehler said he would support the idea of further amending the county's rules in order to define the powers of the chairman more clearly.

"There are a lot of gray areas," he said. "I do think this is a kind of evolving animal as things go forward."

In general, Buehler said he thinks a board chairman should focus more so on building consensus with the board rather than pushing for the ability to pursue his or her own agenda. On the other hand, Franks said he plans to continue shaking things up as it has proven fruitful for his constituents in the past.

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