The McHenry County Board’s newest member, John Collins, is a Crystal Lake resident, moderate Democrat and local business owner who he said he hopes to make the county more attractive to business development, in part, through improving its public transportation.
The county’s access to open spaces and proximity to two urban areas – Rockford and Chicago – should make it a good option for developers, Collins said, and he plans to use his position on the County Board’s transportation committee to help the county realize its full potential.
Collins’ appointment to the McHenry County Board was approved last month – even as all nine of his fellow Democratic board members chose to either abstain or vote “no.” Collins fills the seat vacated by now state Rep. Suzanne Ness.
Collins will attend his first Committee of the Whole meeting with his fellow board members Thursday followed by his first County Board meeting since his appointment next Tuesday. He now sits on two of the board’s committees, transportation and administrative services.
With 35 years of business management experience and 16 years of owning his own business, Collins said he knows how business leaders think and what they look for.
He currently is the president and owner of Omni Supply, an Elgin company that builds environmentally responsible systems to manage fats, oil and grease for the commercial food industry.
Before his ownership of Omni Supply, Collins owned JWC Services, a Crystal Lake commercial kitchen exhaust cleaning company that he sold in 2016 to Gurnee-based Averus.
“John Collins has a lifetime of experience as a successful businessman and innovator,” County Board Chair Mike Buehler said in a news release after nominating Collins to be appointed to the board last month.
The abstentions and votes against Collins were not made as a rejection of Collins himself, but rather as a form of protest against the process that Buehler used to interview candidates and make his nomination, two Democratic board members Kelli Wegener and Jessica Phillips said in statements made before the vote. Wegener said she spoke to Collins before the meeting to let him know that it wasn’t personal.
“I did express that I thought it was not a good idea to vote no,” Collins said in an interview Wednesday. “I just felt that sent the wrong message.”
Democratic board member Tanya Jindrich clarified Tuesday that she chose to abstain from Collins’ confirmation vote because she had been absent due to a medical issue prior to the vote and therefore had “limited knowledge of the process and candidates.” Her choice to abstain was not made as a form of protest, she said.
After interviewing six candidates, Buehler nominated Collins to fill the vacancy. County Board Democrats took issue with who was – and wasn’t – allowed to sit in on these interviews.
“His knowledge will prove invaluable as we work recover from, and grow our economy beyond, the damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Buehler said last month.
As a fellow Democrat from District 2, the district Collins now represents, Phillips said she felt she was wrongly excluded from the interview process in a way that she felt disenfranchised voters.
District 2 includes all or parts of Crystal Lake, Cary, Algonquin, Lake in the Hills and Lakewood. By law, Ness’s replacement had to be someone of the same party and reside within the same district.
District 2 board members Carolyn Schofield and Jeffrey Thorsen, both Republicans, sat in on the interviews along with Democratic board member Kelli Wegener.
Schofield, who also serves as the board’s vice chairwoman, said this made sense as Wegener is a more veteran member than Phillips. Ness also had personally requested that Wegener be involved in choosing her replacement, Schofield said in an interview Monday.
After Collins was approved in a 16-to-5 vote with two abstentions, the board’s Democratic members have been welcoming to him ever since, he said.
“My goal is simply is to do what’s best for McHenry County and District 2,” Collins said Wednesday. “I want to move past it.”
Collins described himself as a “moderate Democrat” comparable to the likes of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. He said he welcomes the opportunity to work across the aisle and feels the more he digs in to the issues currently facing the county, the more he feels they are not partisan issues.
Some of the things Collins said he would like to focus on are improvements to infrastructure and public transportation, promoting business development within the county and improving the county’s mental health support.
On mental health, Collins said McHenry County should rethink its approach to responding to mental health issues, especially as they intersect with homelessness and drug addiction.
Collins’ oldest son is a police officer who he said spends the majority of his time responding to mental health crises. His son tells him that they take people to the nearest hospital, but the hospital is required by law to discharge that person within 24 hours, meaning they often don’t get the care they need.
While the McHenry County Board does not have decision making power over municipal police departments, Collins said he would like to advocate for planning joint trainings or events for local law enforcement agencies.
As he begins his first go at public service, Collins said one of the most important questions he is asking himself and his colleagues is “What do we need to do to grow McHenry County?”
The county’s population has been stagnant for a number of years now, increasing the share of residential real estate taxes that the average resident has to shoulder, he said. This is compounded by the fact that a high percentage of tax revenue comes from residential property taxes as the county lacks business development, he said.
“We have to figure out how to bring in people, which would follow businesses and industry,” Collins said.
In today’s world, the young working class wants fun downtown areas, access to walking paths and public transit and environmentally conscious neighborhoods, he said.
“Living out in the suburbs the way we do, you pretty much need a car to get anywhere,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s going to change overnight, but we need to be looking at those types of things.”