Election 2022: SAFE-T Act not only crime concern for District 1 McHenry County Board candidates

Election 2024
The McHenry County Board voted to make former Elgin School District U-46 administrator Diana Hartmann the next superintendent of the McHenry County Regional Office of Education on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, at the McHenry County Administration Building in Woodstock.

Safety for McHenry County Board District 1 candidates is not just about the SAFE-T Act and its potential effects on the court system here, the candidates said.

For their voters, safety also needs to include police body cameras, reducing drug-related crimes and overdoses, and ensuring young people have access to mental health services.

Five people are running for the two open District 1 seats: Republicans Matthew Kunkle and incumbent Tom Wilbeck, Democratic incumbents Michael Vijuk and Theresa Meshes, and Libertarian Kenneth Martin Mattes.

District 1 sits in the southeast corner of McHenry County and includes all or part of Cary, Trout Valley, Fox River Grove, Algonquin and Barrington Hills.

McHenry County Board, District 1 candidate Theresa Meshes

When asked what safety for residents means to them, each said they had spoken to residents about concerns over the new Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act, or SAFE-T Act, which eliminates cash bail and mandates body cameras for law enforcement in addition to other numerous changes.

The law’s supporters have said it will take money out of the equation of who remains in jail and who doesn’t while their cases wind their way through the courts. Critics said it will put too many dangerous offenders back on the streets, increasing crime.

“The SAFE-T bill is going to create additional expenses that will have to be covered,” said Kunkel, a point fellow Republican Wilbeck agreed with.

Tom Wilbeck is running for reelection in District 1 of the McHenry County Board.

Wilbeck, an incumbent, pointed to new costs the county will incur in hiring personnel needed so that the courthouse can meet the new requirement that a hearing is held within 48 hours to determine whether a defendant should be released.

Weekend court hours, on both Saturdays and Sundays, will cost the county more, Wilbeck said, but he added that he would leave the choices of how to address the cost to the court system.

Vijuk, a Democratic incumbent from Cary, noted that the County Board has little say on how courts and the sheriff’s office operate day to day.

McHenry County Board candidate Michael Vijuk.

They can help by making funds available and ensuring the sheriff’s deputies have “the most updated equipment, both when they deal with individuals and the storage of information,” Vijuk said.

One of two Republicans running for the two open seats, Kunkle, was a late addition to the ballot. Kunkle, who did not run in the June primary and was slated by the Republican Party over the summer, said he understands there is a lot of fear in suburban and rural residents around the new law.

“People are concerned with their safety. They are afraid what is in Chicago will spill to us,” he said.

What residents have not told him, Kunkle said, is that they have personally been a victim of crime.

Wilbeck agreed that there are concerns about the new bail policy and how that will affect people and their safety.

“That remains to be seen,” he said.

Overall, Democratic incumbent Meshes said, “We are a safe community. The dangers we have … are self-inflicted.”

The county’s drug crisis is its biggest safety issue, said Meshes, a Fox River Grove resident.

Kenneth Martin Mattes

“We don’t have a high level of crime and … are doing a great job at community policing,” Meshes said. “Our issues come from mental health issues, the issue of drugs and alcohol dependency, the isolation and loneliness they are still feeling from [COVID-19].”

Mattes, the Libertarian candidate, said safety “is all about individuals. Everybody should have a healthy life … and have healthy relationships with each other,” he said.

Residents, he said, need “more healthy support systems and resources to support themselves.”

He’s concerned that law enforcement becomes the mental health professional for some in jail.

“They get involved in the system, and the jailers become administrators of mental health [programs], and the inmates become patients,” Mattes said.

But more police does not necessarily mean more safety for residents, he said, adding that police should not focus on prosecuting low-level drug offenses “when they could be going after violent crime.”