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Schuster: County Board rules changes about openess, transparency

In a recent Northwest Herald editorial on the proposed changes for the McHenry County Board rules, several points should be expanded upon.

In general, these rules guide the board through the maze of work to be done on behalf of the electors. They also set expectations and requirements for ethical actions, openness and transparency in our proceedings.

The editorial contends that this update is “aimed at curtailing the board chairman’s powers.”

While not that simple, that is correct. For decades, under current rules, the chairmanship was a first-among-equals role. This has eroded to a chairman consolidating power into what some describe as a strong-man role undermining the spirit and practice of the democratic process.

The current system enables each person seeking the board chairmanship to promise committee appointments, chairmanships, and special favors to secure their allegiance and votes. The proposed changes are aimed at curtailing Springfield/Chicago-style governance in McHenry County.

Continuing the old system, board members wanting the chairman to have more power inadvertently abdicate their responsibilities on behalf of their constituent’s.

To the issue of term limits for our County Board chairman, state statute says that the County Board will “choose one of its members as chairman for a term of two years,” (55 ILCS 5/2-1003).

Although the state constitution does not allow for term limits, County Board rules provide the mechanism, allowing board members to set expectations regarding the internal chairman selection process. The recommended change limiting a chairman three two-year terms is reasonable and does not impact any board member’s election by his/her constituents. We are often reminded that term limits in Illinois are long overdue as an effective means to curtailing the corruption associated with long-serving public officials.

Supporters of the current rules, including the states attorney’s office, threaten that we may be looking at a lawsuit should someone challenge these proposed rules. However, we know that laws are challenged all the time. In addition, the likelihood that persons seeking elected office would challenge the rules is limited by projecting the appearance they are being self-serving and power-hungry.

Third is the concept of limiting the chairman’s appointment power over various boards and commissions.

Statutes often say “the chairman appoints with the approval of the county board.” However, in nearly all cases, the McHenry County Board’s practice has been to notice the public of open positions; a board committee interviews the candidates; the best candidate is recommended to the chairman; the chairman moves that nominee to the full board for final approval. The proposed changes establish a method of making appointments by formalizing a transparent and open appointment process for the community.

This appointment process is critical for these agencies/boards as they have the authority to make decisions impacting the management and allocation of huge sums of tax dollars. When one person – i.e. a chairman – unilaterally makes these appointment recommendations, family, friends and cronies are far more likely to be recommended. It also puts the 23 other members in the unfortunate position of approving appointments, often without benefit of public notice and/or an open interview process. Examples include the public’s questions, concerns and frustrations over the 708 Mental Health Board and the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) appointments.

Point number four: Election of the county board chairman at large.

No one suggests the public not have the opportunity to vote on the chairman-at-large question. However, the voters were clear when they defeated a referendum on an executive form of county government. They were wise enough to know that another layer of government is not the answer to what they see as untouchable, runaway, big-brother government, and the danger of consolidated power in the hands one person.

Look at the state of Illinois under House Speaker Michael Madigan’s one-man rule.  Springfield is the poster child for proving what damage one person, with the willing support of those aligned with him, can inflict on a state. McHenry County need not replicate this.

When the public is increasingly withdrawing from the electoral process out of sheer disillusionment and distrust in their representatives, these rules changes fit the times and are a huge step in bringing county government back to its citizens.

• Ersel Schuster represents District 6 on the McHenry County Board

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