As the first term of McHenry County's first publicly elected County Board chair comes to an end, clashes between the McHenry County Board and its chairman have sparked questions of where the limits of the board chair's power should lie.
For more than a hundred years, up until 2016, the McHenry County Board chair was appointed by the County Board membership every two years, a set-up similar to the speaker of the House, where the chair had one vote like every other member but had the power to set meeting agendas, run meetings and assign committee chairmanships with the consent of the board.
Under that model, County Board chairman was elected as a member by the constituents in their district, but then appointed by a majority of their fellow board members. The members also had the ability to remove a chair.
But in 2014, residents approved a referendum changing the position so that it would be elected by the general public. The change took effect in the November election of 2016 when former state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, beat out Republican Michael Walkup to become the county's first publicly-elected County Board chairman.
Many aspects of what the new role would look like were a mystery to the County Board going into the 2016 election, said County Board member Joseph Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, who served as board chair under the old model from 2014 to 2016. He ran to be the county's first elected chair in 2016 but lost in the Republican primary.
“As much as the board tried to anticipate what [the role] would look like … we couldn't think of all the different scenarios and aspects of it and naturally whoever that person would have been that filled that role has to envision what they believe it should be,” said County Board member and Vice-Chair Michael Skala, R-Huntley. “So there are a lot of growing pains.”
Under Illinois law, the County Board Chair is not an executive role, like the governor of a state, but rather acts as the face of the board and facilitates its work. The board chair, as well as board members, can now only serve a maximum of two terms after McHenry County voters passed a referendum calling for term limits in the 2018 election.
While the switch did not add any new responsibilities to role and removed the chair as a voting member, the chair being its own department has given Franks the independence to push for agenda items based on what he thinks is best for the county's taxpayers, Franks said in an interview on Wednesday.
“We've been able to transform this office into a force for real positive change,” Franks said. "(Before) if you wanted to keep the job, you didn't rock the boat by proposing major reforms or forcing tough votes, you had to go along to get along and the members liked it that way.”
This structural independence, however, has also removed the "allegiance" to members of the board and the intrinsic motivation to work collaboratively that was present in the average appointed board chair, Gottemoller said.
“The biggest difference is it's set up that the chairman and the board are not necessarily on the same team and I don’t mean politically,” he said. “There's no mechanism to have to work it out, there’s no allegiance between the two entities.”
Franks said he sees that as an advantage.
“The County Board may have a position on an issue and the chair may have an entirely different one that I can aggressively pursue because, in the end, it's not the County Board that decides whether I keep my job – I only have to be accountable to the taxpayers," he said.
The chairman's opponent this November, Republican newcomer Mike Buehler, said Franks has failed to fulfill his most important responsibility: the facilitate orderly and organized meetings.
Buehler said he wants to restore order and eliminate "hyper-politicization" by bringing a spirit of collaboration to the role.
"Is it really the role of the chairman to hold the board accountable? Ultimately, it should be the taxpayers that hold the board accountable whether they want to elect them back into office again or not," he said.
Perhaps the most contentious issue is the ways in which Franks uses the power afforded to him to set meeting agendas in order to "circumvent the committee process," Gottemoller said.
When a resolution to eliminate the county's contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement died in committee, Franks brought the proposal before the full County Board anyway.
A proposal to reduce the salaries of certain elected officials by ten percent was placed on the agenda of a Committee of the Whole meeting in May without discussion in advisory committees, prompting Gottemoller to lead a motion to refuse to vote on the matter.
“That could serve the constituents because … it's a way to move things forward if perhaps it's getting stuck in committee,” said County Board member Suzanne Ness, D-Crystal Lake, who said she thinks the county made the right call in 2014. “But sometimes I have felt like that has been misused and it’s been a point of frustration for me at times.”
If Buehler is elected chairman, he said he would place more trust in the discretion of committee members to decide which resolutions should go to the full board for consideration, independent of whether it is something they would support on a personal level.
"I don't think that the occasional use of the chairman's power to bring something forward would be out of line, especially in an emergency situation of some sort," he said. "But I do think if something dies in committee, it dies in committee for a reason."
These tensions came to a head at the end of August when several board members signed on to call a special meeting to amend the County Board rules, an effort spearheaded by board member Jim Kearns.
The amendments to the rules reduced the powers of the board chairman in a few key ways – the most noteworthy of which being the removal of the chairman as the person in charge of choosing committee chairmanships.
“[Franks] has said for the last three years, ‘I'm not bound by the rules of the board because I'm the chairman,’” Gottemoller said. “And that's correct, but that means the board has now taken a step and said, ‘Fine, then you'll no longer organize the committees. We will.’”
County Board member Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, said the board chair, as well as board members, must maintain a balance between challenging the status quo and being respectful of governmental processes.
“Honoring the process and making sure it's transparent is the foundation of everything because that's what builds trust,” Althoff said. “I can trust in, you know, I may not like that particular person, but that person is held to these standards and can't color outside those lines and, yes, that may be restrictive but if you're really good at what you do, you can color inside those lines and actually finish that little picture and it's beautiful.”
Four years later, certain things about the elected board chair's role are still being ironed out. Meaning the question of whether the switch will be beneficial for residents in the long run remains difficult to answer, Gottemoller said.