Discussion of raises for McHenry County state’s attorneys prompts political finger-pointing

McHenry County Board to vote Tuesday

McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Keneally talks about how cashless bail is going to be implemented. Kenneally spoke during a McHenry County Bar Association meeting entitled "Pretrial and Fairness and Safe-T: Navigating the Elimination of Cash Bail and Related Items" on Tuesday Aug. 29, at the McHenry Count Sheriff's Office.

McHenry County prosecutors and public defenders could soon get raises, if the McHenry County Board approves them Tuesday.

The raises are proposed to be an “emergency” appropriation, and county board members Thursday raised concerns about that process. The county approved its annual budget just before Thanksgiving.

The new proposed salaries would include raises that officials say would make them more competitive with other Chicago-area counties.

“My issues revolve around process and budget process, specifically,” Michael Skala, R-Huntley, said. “We do sometimes have emergency appropriations for personnel that come outside of budget process, but typically, those are one-offs.”

Skala added that approving such an increase outside the budget process “sets a a precedence that I would rather not have here in the county.”

McHenry County Board member Kelli Wegener debates a resolution opposing the Illinois gun ban and supporting its repeal at the McHenry County Board meeting Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in the McHenry County Administration Building.

County board member Kelli Wegener, D- Crystal Lake, who is running to unseat county board Chair Mike Buehler this year, talked about lawsuits the state’s attorney office has filed for what she said were for political purposes.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally, a Republican who is running for reelection this year, so far unopposed, responded: “I dispute your premise that we’re filing lawsuits for political gain.”

When pressed by Kenneally to name specific lawsuits, Wegener mentioned the SAFE-T Act and the Protect Illinois Act, the state’s ban on semiautomatic weapons. Kenneally said he did most of his work on the SAFE-T Act on weekends and said he can “almost guarantee” the U.S. Supreme Court will strike down the gun law. The high court declined to put a hold on the law late last year.

“I stand by my statement that these lawsuits are for political gain,” Wegener said after the exchange with Kenneally.

Several members of the county board condemned Wegener’s comments.

“I do believe that the way that this was just approached in this morning’s discussion was for political purposes of someone obviously running for office at this time,” board member Terri Greeno, R- Crystal Lake, said. “To put them in a position of attack on the state’s attorney, it makes no sense at all and not appreciated by this board.”

However, Wegener later apologized to Kenneally for “sounding accusatory” and Kenneally apologized for his tone.

Board member Eric Hendricks, R-Lake in the Hills, said Wegener’s remarks were “out of line” and appreciated “member Wegener walking that comment back” after she apologized. Hendricks is running for reelection against former board member Robert “Bob” Novak in one of the few competitive county races in the March 19 GOP primary.

Wegener agreed with Skala about this coming up outside the budget process, and said she would vote no on the proposal as it currently stands.

Hendricks said he will be supporting the proposal, saying there was a “sneak attack” from other counties.

Board member Jim Kearns, R-Huntley, said he supported the proposal and noted the state’s attorney’s office’s role in fighting laws the county opposes, mentioning a proposal to ban single-family zoning in parts of Illinois.

“This is a bunch of bull,” Kearns said about such laws. “We need to keep our top attorneys.”

Many of the board members opined that the raises were needed to keep experienced people in the office.

“We need to attract and retain arguably the best intellectual property in the state of Illinois and possibly the United States,” Greeno said.

Board member Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, said he began his career as an assistant state’s attorney in Livingston County and supported the proposal.

“If we don’t do something, their office is going to be emptied out,” Gottemoller said. “They’ll find somebody to run the show or replace it, but it won’t be somebody you want to be defend or prosecuting for you.”

Buehler said McHenry County is the safest county in Illinois with over 100,000 people in large part to the state’s attorney’s office.

The McHenry County Board is set to vote on the proposal for the raises Tuesday.