ICE in the jail, regional superintendent out: McHenry County Board chairman marks first year

Buehler took over the board’s leadership in December 2020. It’s his first time serving in elected office.

McHenry County Board Chairman Michael Buehler

Just one year into the job as McHenry County Board chairman, Mike Buehler had to tackle McHenry County’s response to COVID-19, the controversial contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and turmoil in the McHenry Regional Office of Education.

The Crystal Lake Republican had never held political office before defeating incumbent Democratic chairman Jack Franks and taking the reins of the County Board last December. One year later, Buehler said he is settling into the role and his leadership style.

“I’m most comfortable when I can just talk to people, or more importantly, just listen,” Buehler said. “I learned that with my business long ago.”

While board members all have different opinions on the various issues, Buehler said he thinks he has struck the right tone.

“There may be some partisanship, but I think there’s far less partisanship than there ever was before,” he said.

McHenry County Board Chairman Michael Buehler

Buehler said his goal as chairman has been to create open dialogue. As chairman, Buehler doesn’t get to vote in meetings except to break a tie and he said he thinks it’s his responsibility to make sure board members can share their views.

“It’s much easier to have those difficult conversation and let everyone speak. You just kind of let things happen organically in those meetings,” he said.

Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, said she is glad Buehler came in intending to have “thoughtful and purposeful” conversations.

“That’s important to have those open lines of communication,” Yensen said, adding that board chairmen in past years have set that precedent for Buehler.

Vice Chairman Carolyn Schofield, R-Crystal Lake, said Buehler’s lack of political experience was beneficial and he has grown into the job throughout the year.

“It has worked well from the stand point that he didn’t come in with any kind of agenda or any preconceived notion of anyone,” she said. “You didn’t have any enemies to begin with.”

The board had its fair share of partisan issues in 2021, however.

Many Democrats on the board did not support Buehler’s nomination of John Collins, D-Crystal Lake, to fill the spot left by state Rep. Suzanne Ness, D-Crystal Lake, arguing Buehler excluded them from the process. In August, the board fought over a flag proposal that many Republicans favored but the board’s Democrats interpreted as a ban on the pride flag.

The county’s ICE contract also cut divisions along party lines. The board’s Republicans were able in May to defeat a push by Democrats to end the county’s contract with ICE, though state lawmakers ultimately passed a law making the contract illegal.

“It’s surreal walking into a room of 150 people that all want to make public comment on both sides of the issue,” Buehler said of the board’s vote to keep the ICE contract.

McHenry County Board Chairman Michael Buehler

Buehler said he still is interested to see how the state’s law ending the ICE contract holds up in court, where the county is challenging it. The contract is still set to end after Dec. 31.

“There’s more than just the issue of the revenue from that contract,” he said. “If we lose that contract, the people that are in there that are possibly from McHenry County are going to be moved to a facility much farther away from their families.”

Board member Michael Vijuk, D-Cary, noted 2022 is an election year in which all board members will be up reelection and partisan politics will still influence how the board runs. He said there is still more work to do to reduce partisan divides on the board.

“I feel that there will be a long road ahead with the election season coming [if we want] to diminish the negative impact partisan politics plays on the board and its decision-making,” Vijuk said.

Other issues, including problems at the Regional Office of Education, escalated in the last year, forcing the board to take action.

Buehler said he was aware from day one that problems had persisted for years at the ROE under Superintendent Leslie Schermerhorn, who the board unanimously removed from office in November.

“I feel bad. It’s not something that anyone wanted to do, but I think it got to the point where everyone felt like enough was enough,” he said of removing Schermerhorn.

The county and Buehler now are in the process of finding a new superintendent. The county has received three applicants for the position so far, Buehler said.

Schofield said Buehler is taking complicated issues in stride.

“We have been challenged more so in the past year than in my previous recollection because there are more public issues,” she said. “The public took part in those conversations as well and they drove a lot of that conversation.”

While the board has faced big challenges in Buehler’s first year, some achievements received strong support, such as a new training center for police officers throughout the county.

“It’s such an opportunity for everyone in the county to work together,” Schofield said. “When you work together, it’s better and you can accomplish so much more.”

McHenry County Board Chairman Michael Buehler

The training center also will help the county control spending in the future as the county prepares to deal with increased expenditures in future years because of rising prices and new requirements from the state, Buehler said.

“We will continue to work really hard on collaborating with other municipalities and share services that can save costs on both sides of the equation,” he said.

As the board gets set to undergo a major change in 2022 by shrinking to 18 members from 24, plenty of issues remain on the board’s plate.

“I would like to see infrastructure investment and working on fiber optics and internet capabilities,” Yensen said.

Issues from COVID-19 also remain and Buehler said he hopes the board can focus on access to mental health following the pandemic, as well as economic development to help the county recover.

“I’m looking forward to the next three years,” Buehler said. “We’re working together well as a board and we have some good things coming.”

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