Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Currently, nobody is in charge of Winnebago County. There are 28 board members, countywide elected officials, numerous appointed department heads, some judges and no captain of the team.
The fact that there are only 20 members of the Winnebago County Board — you knew that, right? — probably tipped you to the fact that the paragraph above was not written recently.
However, the words that columnist Chuck Sweeny wrote Nov. 25, 1990, could apply today as some County Board members work to diminish — or define, depending on whose side you’re on — the authority of Chairman Frank Haney.
The board is expected to consider Thursday another attempt — the ninth attempt since late 2016 — to alter the administrative structure of Winnebago County government.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Controversy and the role of the chairman seem to go hand in hand. How did Winnebago County finally adopt its current structure? Below are excerpts from stories that appeared in the Rockford Register Star.
March 11, 1986: Winnebago County government is a $35 million-a-year business, employing about 830 people full time and an additional 100 part time.
And yet, some people say, no one is minding the store.
They want to change that by asking voters to approve a change in the way the county operates, the second significant change in the nearly 150 years since the county was incorporated.
March 19, 1986: Winnebago County voters decided by a margin of 62.8 percent to 37.8 percent Tuesday that they do not want a chief executive in charge of county government.
“The same crew that tried to push home rule, the special service tax, and countless other referendums have failed again,” said Cal Ferguson, spokesman for the Winnebago County Taxpayers’ Association, which led opposition to the referendum question.
Peter MacKay, R-5: “The proposal failed because it was total nonsense.”
Frank St. Angel, a former County Board chairman who helped lead a pro-referendum committee: “It’s not going to be the end of the world. County government will continue to bumble along, without anybody in charge. We’re still not going to have visible, accountable leadership. It’ll be business as usual in county government.”
County government did indeed “bumble along” with board members often clashing with the county administrator.
March 24, 1988: The new Winnebago County administrator could be the fifth person in nine years to hold a job in which he will answer to 28 bosses.
The 28-member County Board created the job of county administrator in 1978 in an effort to streamline administrative tasks so board members could concentrate on policy decisions.
But at least two of the four people who have held the job since 1979 have clashed with the board over decision-making power.
When (Paul Schriever) submitted his resignation in June 1982, (he) expressed his frustration with answering to the 28-member board. He said: “With 28 people, how are you going to satisfy them all at a given point of time?”
“Visible, accountable leadership” was missing and it was noticed.
Oct. 14, 1990, column by Chad Brooks, editorial page editor: If you have a problem with county government, do you know who to blame? Of course you don’t; nobody does. Nobody is in charge.
Without a chief executive, our county is run by 28 part-time board members and nine independently elected department heads, often pulling in different directions. It’s like a manufacturing business trying to operate without an executive, with sales, production and accounting departments all making their own decisions based on what is best for themselves. Such a business would fail quickly.
Nov. 25, 1990, column by Sweeny: “Once every 10 years, after the census we have the option to change the way we name a board chairman. The board can vote to have the position become elected ... by all the county’s voters,” said Scott Christiansen, R-10.
A chairman elected by all the voters would give a recognizable, executive leader to county government and define the board’s role as legislative, he said.
Christiansen, a self-styled reformer, has long advocated having a chairman elected at large. ... He pushed those ideas as a board member in the mid-1980s. ...
A countywide chairman, however, would have the same functions as the current chairman, Christiansen said.
April 1, 1991: Winnebago County may have its own “mayor” after the 1992 elections.
Before the board is a proposal that would profoundly change county government by having the board chairman elected at-large, with powers similar to those of a city mayor.
Currently, the chairman is little more than a meeting moderator, elected from one of 14 districts. The chairman is named by the caucus of the party controlling the board. ...
Proponents say the county desperately needs one person in charge of the board and its 500 employees.
“It’s time we brought county government into the 20th century while there’s still a 20th century,” Scott Christiansen, R-10, a chief proponent, said.
The current weak-chairman system makes the board a stepchild to the eight countywide elected officials, said Christiansen, chairman of the county’s reorganization committee, which unanimously recommended an at-large chairman last week.
The at-large chairman would provide someone who could “look the elected officials in the eye as an equal, because he’s been elected by all the people of the county,” Christiansen said.
April 12, 1991: Winnebago County voters will elect their first “county mayor” in 1992 under a plan approved last night.
The Winnebago County Board voted 25-2 to combine the positions of county board chairman and county administrator into one job — an elected chairman at large.
“This will bring us closer to a constitutional form of government by separating the executive and legislative ends of government,” Christiansen said.
Ousley Walker, D-6, said he voted no because the position has too much power.
“He is almost king of the hill. All we have done is add another layer of typical political people. ...
“It is not fair to the people of Winnebago County. ... They defeated a similar move four years ago. This should never have been done without a public hearing.”
One board member, John Schou, R-9, said it had taken the county more than 10 years to get around to strengthening the top administrative position in the county.
“We appointed an administrator, but we never gave him the power to carry out the duties,” Schou said of county administrator Steve Chapman.
Christiansen said he expects Chapman will stay on as an administrative assistant or head of a new division under plans to combine departments.
The two candidates for chairman in the Republican primary in 1992 were Gene Quinn and Pete MacKay. MacKay’s platform was to abolish the job.
March 8, 1992: “The chairman-at-large position is practically the same as that of county executive, something voters defeated in a referendum by a 2-to-1 margin. What you’re going to attract is a high-priced political hog-trougher,” said MacKay .
Quinn won the primary and faced Democrat Doug Scott in the general election. Remember the plan to combine chairman and administrator? That was changed.
June 24, 1992: Management consultants told Winnebago County officials 2 1/2 years ago that reorganizing most departments under two main department heads would be a more efficient way to run county government. ...
County Board member Scott Christiansen, R-10, says he has an even better idea: Reorganize nine departments under the county administrator, who then would report to the County Board chairman to be elected as the county’s new top executive office in November.
The main difference? Under Christiansen’s plan Steve Chapman would remain county administrator. ...
MacKay : “I would retain the position because Chapman knows what is going on. I don’t believe the new chairman should be full time and whether or not it becomes a job for some political boob, we need somebody who is familiar with county operations.”
OK, so it seems everything is settled and it’s time to focus on the November election. Not quite.
Oct. 4, 1992: Winnebago County officials have not been able to produce a clear picture of what the board chairman will do once elected to the new $65,000-a-year job.
Board member Judy Barnard, R-13, has said, “This is a new position, and we don’t know what the job is going to be yet.”
On the other side of the political fence, County Clerk Gloria Lind, a Democrat, has said the job description adopted by the board is too vague and could allow the chairman to parcel out his duties to staff members.
“They could end up with somebody who could sit in that office and do nothing,” Lind said.
The job was not clearly defined even after those concerns were voiced.
Oct. 22, 1992: Editorial Board endorses Gene Quinn to be first elected at-large chairman.
The new chairmanship represents a governmental reform that is long overdue. For too many years. Winnebago County government has been a headless monster, an unwieldy system in which 28 part-time County Board members and numerous department heads, appointed and elected, often have pulled in different directions. The County Board chairman has been helpless to change the system.
Heretofore, the board has elected its own chairman from among its members, but the position has no real power. Under this arrangement, the chairman has owed the job not to the countywide electorate, but to party mates on the board. The post has been so weak that there has not been a person with whom the proverbial buck stops. In effect, the county has lacked a chief executive officer — a “mayor,” as it were.
All of that presumably will change now with the creation of a chairmanship filled not by a member of the board’s rank-and-file, but by a candidate elected at-large by voters countywide. The chairman will prepare budget proposals, vote to break ties on the board and wield veto power over board actions. Beyond that, the powers of the office mostly will be what the chairman makes them within the limits of state law. ...
Quinn served one term as chairman. The 1996 election pitted County Clerk Kris Cohn against Mike Rotello, who had been a Rockford alderman, county auditor and 69th District state representative. The Register Star endorsed Cohn.
Oct. 28, 1996: We believe she can take the position, which is also relatively new, to the next level for county residents.
Cohn shook things up in her two terms.
Oct. 23, 1997, column by Sweeny: When Kristine Cohn was elected chairman of the Winnebago County Board in 1996, I thought, “This is going to be fun.” I figured she’d put alarm clocks — and set them on “loud” ring — in all the offices at the county administration tomb on Elm Street.
She has not done that, but she has been pressing snoozy bureaucrats to crack down on blight in poor neighborhoods, building working relationships with other local governments to solve common problems and using her public relations skills to take the media spotlight and put a face on county government.
Now, Cohn’s gone and done it again, bringing to mind the notion that sometimes you’ve got to break the rules.
When Sheriff Richard Meyers held a campaign bash Wednesday at Cliffbreakers to announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in March 1998, he was introduced by Cohn, a Republican. Some GOP leaders were not amused, she said.
She was challenged for the chairmanship in the Republican primary by MacKay in 2000. MacKay again campaigned on abolishing the position.
Dec. 2, 1999: MacKay believes the countywide chairmanship, conceived by Republicans and created by the Republican-controlled County Board following the 1990 census, has expanded both the role and cost of county government to the detriment of taxpayers. ...
Cohn, who announced her re-election plans last summer, said she’s proud of her record and strongly supports retention of the countywide chairmanship. ...
(MacKay) conceded that he can’t single-handedly dismantle the countywide chairman’s post, though.
“The County Board can vote to end it, the board can put the question to the voters, or the public could privately petition to put a binding referendum on the ballot,” he said.
MacKay wants to return to the old system, in which the 28-member board elects one of its own to be chairman.
“There was more collegiality on the board then. I don’t think county government was meant to be a big deal. We didn’t used to pay a chairman $65,000 or provide a luxury car,” MacKay said.
Cohn was re-elected. She got a job in the U.S. Department of Education and did not finish her second term. Christiansen was appointed chairman in 2004.
Oct, 31, 2004: Editorial Board endorses Christiansen for chairman.
There was a time, not so long ago, that if the Winnebago County Board chairman said the sun would come up in the morning, the board would swear it wasn’t so.
With Scott Christiansen, those days are over.
They were until recently. Frank Haney was elected chairman in 2016 and lately his relationship with some board members has been rocky at best.
How will this chapter in Winnebago County history end? Based on the past, there’s never a dull moment when it comes to Winnebago County governance.
ROCKFORD — The Winnebago County Board approved a sweeping rewrite of the chairman’s powers Thursday and placed county budgetary and management responsibility on the shoulders of the county’s appointed administrator.
Chairman Frank Haney said he’s disappointed in the board’s 13-7 decision to transform his job description a bit more than halfway through his four-year term. The board’s decision re-engineers the will of voters who elected him chairman in 2016, he said.
The ordinance overhaul approved Thursday represents the ninth attempt by the board to alter the power structure of Winnebago County government since late 2016. Haney took office in December 2016 and his relationship with the board has decayed to the point that in December, a handful of current and former board members criticized his leadership and communication style and called on him to resign.
“What we did tonight is unlike anything we’ve done in the history of Winnebago County,” Haney said. “The things that are important to this community are still important. How I will have to adjust in order to accomplish those things, I can’t say right now. I’m going to have to figure that out.”
Following the board’s action Thursday, the chairman no longer has the responsibility to monitor, review and recommend an annual budget to the County Board and negotiate leases, contracts and other agreements for goods or services on behalf of the county. Those duties are now codified by county ordinance as the responsibility of the county administrator, who answers to the County Board. Several board members have expressed concern that the proposed changes put too much power in the hands of an unelected county administrator and that 20 part-time members of the County Board can’t provide adequate oversight of the administrator.
Haney said there was no written or formal procedure for evaluating the county administrator when he took office in 2016, though he has had frequent conversations with administrator Carla Paschal about the things he’d like her to accomplish, especially since she assumed the dual role of chief financial officer and county administrator following the 2017 departure of former county administrator Amanda Haymaker.
Now that the administrator reports to the County Board, the board would be wise to discuss how to direct and evaluate Paschal’s job performance, said board member Dave Kelley.
But “I don't know how that will happen with 20 board members,” said Kelley, R-9, who voted against the ordinance overhaul on Thursday. “How do 20 people do that? I don’t understand how that would work. An administrator can’t take direction from 20 people. An administrator can’t please 20 people.”
How they voted
Yes: Jas Bilich, R-20; Angie Goral, D-13; Dorothy Redd, D-18; Jaime Salgado, D-12; Fred Wescott, R-17; Joe Hoffman, D-10; Keith McDonald, R-6; Steve Schultz, R-3; Dave Tassoni, D-5; Burt Gerl, D-15; Dave Fiduccia, R-11; Dave Boomer, R-4; and Jim Webster, R-2.
No: Aaron Booker, R-1; Dave Kelley, R-9; Tim Nabors, D-14; Dan Fellars, D-19; Paul Arena, R-7; John Butitta, R-8; and Jean Crosby, R-16.
Board member Keith McDonald, R-6, said he too thinks the board should discuss how it will hold the administrator accountable. Machesney Park, McDonald said, operates with a part-time elected mayor and a full-time administrator who runs the day-to-day operation of the village. The village’s structure seems to work well, McDonald said, and could be a model for the county.
“I think we need to streamline that and not have all 20 give (the administrator) direction,” McDonald said. “If I had my preference, and I don’t know what it looks like, but if I had my preference, it would be the committee chairmen. Have a committee of the committee chairmen do that.”
But “that’s the problem,” said board member Jean Crosby, R-16, who voted against the ordinance change. “A few board members do that and nobody knows what’s going on and everything’s undercover. And that’s the problem. It’s not going to go anywhere.”
Board member Dan Fellars, D-19, said he’s not sure that a majority of the board wants to do the work of holding the administrator accountable or even developing a process to do so.
“This is just passing the buck,” Fellars said. “Most people on the County Board actually don’t want to do a lot of work. They’re all part-timers. If the chairman isn’t doing it the way they want to, they’re going to find somebody else to do it the way they want to. They don’t really want to get involved.”
For months, Fellars has asserted that the majority of board members who have soured on Haney have orchestrated a gutting of the chairman’s duties and responsibilities simply because they don’t like Haney. During the board meeting on Thursday, Fellars fired a series of questions about the soundness of the ordinance overhaul to board member Dave Fiduccia, who sponsored the proposal.
Fellars then found himself the target of the “personality politics” that he has so frequently derided. After Fellars concluded his line of questioning, his caucus chairman, board member Joe Hoffman, mocked Fellars by referring to him as Clarence Darrow.
“It’s unfortunate that my caucus chair used those words tonight,” Fellars said of Hoffman’s remarks after the board meeting.
Einar Forsman, president and CEO of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, took to Twitter after the board meeting to express his disappointment with the board’s action.
“Another fine moment for our County Board,” Forsman tweeted. “Total disregard for the voters.”
When I ran to become a member of the Winnebago County Board it was to improve our community, cultivate a strong business environment, fight to reduce our property taxes, and focus on economic development. Rockford is geographically located in a prime area where there is easy access to major interstate roads. We should be thriving; we should be growing.
Instead we have had a 2 1/2-year battle in reversing the current form of governance to eventually making the chairman position a part-time job with the county administrator running the day-to-day operations. To compound the issue, the future plan is to have the County Board members select by vote which of the County Board members would serve as a liaison to the administrator and County Board.
The genesis of this began in August of 2016 prior to the November general election of Frank Haney. Board members Gary Jury, Eli Nicolosi and John Guevara wanted an ordinance change to form an executive committee where the chairman would report to the executive committee and the executive committee would report to the County Board. The ordinance change was withdrawn due to public outcry.
In November of 2016 a second attempt was made to resurrect the executive committee, but it was withdrawn, again.
In July of 2017 the conversation shifted and was repackaged from the use of “executive committee” to transferring the chain of command from the chairman to the administrator. Thus, having the administrator report directly to the County Board and not the county chairman. This change in the ordinance was withdrawn for a third time.
In the fall of 2018, the subject again surfaced during a “meeting of the whole” where both political caucuses’ met together. This attempt was from certain board members who want to run the county, but do not want to run for a countywide election. The conversation regarding the ordinance was withdrawn for a fourth time.
On Dec. 3, 2018, the County Board approved the committee assignments. Lo and behold a new committee surfaced for approval called the Personnel and Policies Committee to be chaired by Dave Fiduccia. This was the first time several board members became aware of the new committee.
As for myself, I said, “the chairman must be aware of this” and voted it in. Wrong. The chairman, like several other board members, had no knowledge. Later, in speaking with Republican Caucus Chair Dave Boomer, he admitted he and others withheld the information by intent. The first action item that came forward from this committee was to alter the governance of Winnebago County.
In January 2019 the ordinance changing the governance of the county passed with a vote of 12-8. Those who voted against the governance change are John Butitta, Aaron Booker, Jean Crosby, Dan Fellars, David Kelly, Keith McDonald, Tim Nabors and Steve Schultz. In the following days it was discovered that Jury, Fiduccia, Fred Wescott and past board member Randy Olson had been working on the ordinance change to alter the governance of Winnebago County since June of 2018 via private emails. Included in this behind-the-scenes working group was the county administrator, Carla Paschal, although Paschal denies such participation.
So, where does Jean Crosby stand today? Jean Crosby stands with the voter.
The citizens of Winnebago County elected Frank Haney to lead our community into our future. Our future could be bright, but we have disruptors on the board that want to run our county without having the burden of running for a countywide election. To be honest, they lack the skill set to win a countywide election.
These disruptors will tell you nothing has changed, but everything has changed. I have been told our merry men of disruption are waiting for things to calm down, so several more changes in the ordinance can be accomplished including reducing the chairmanship of our county to a part-time position. No county of our size would call this, as quoted by Fiduccia, a “best practice.”
It is a personal goal to reverse this antiquated, obsolete and outdated form of county management and restore our county to its prior state of governance. If the disrupters choose not to listen to their constituents, it may take a referendum.
My prayer is that the electorates of our community will take a stand and help reverse this backroom, behind the scenes, political power play in our county. The voter voice is the only voice that should be heard. What say you?
Jean Crosby, R-16, is a member of the Winnebago County Board.
Now that Frank Haney has taken himself out of the running, it’s time for Winnebago County Board members — and voters — to decide the scope of the County Board chairman’s powers.
Haney’s announcement Thursday that he won’t seek re-election is a logical move since board members whittled away at his powers to the point that he has become nothing more than a meeting moderator. That’s not the job he signed up for and we can’t imagine that there are too many people out there who would want the job as currently constituted.
Haney advocated that the board put a question on the 2020 ballot asking voters whether they want a strong, elected at-large county executive, a question similar to one the voters overwhelmingly said no to in 1986.
Six years later, because the board saw the need for a chairman who could “look the elected officials in the eye as an equal, because he’s been elected by all the people of the county,” Gene Quinn became the first chairman elected countywide.
Quinn was followed by Kris Cohn, Scott Christiansen (it’s Christiansen who is quoted above in 1992) and Haney. The powers of chairman never were clearly defined, so it was up to whoever was elected to figure out what the job was.
Until Haney, that is. The board has approved nine ordinance changes limiting Haney’s authority. What the board giveth, the board taketh away, it seems. That’s not good government. It’s more mob rule than good government — and it’s a lousy way to treat voters who cast their ballots for Haney assuming he would wield the same clout as his predecessor.
The county now has three choices:
• Put a referendum on the ballot and allow voters a voice.
• Elect a chairman from among County Board members, which is how it was until 1992.
• Keep the job as is and allow the County Board to adjust the chairman’s authority as board members see fit.
Our preference would be to ask voters. If they say no — again — then it’s fair to go back to the old way of doing business. However, we think the complexity of county government requires a stronger hand.
Here is what we said about the position when we endorsed Quinn in 1992: “Heretofore, the board has elected its own chairman from among its members, but the position has no real power. Under this arrangement, the chairman has owed the job not to the countywide electorate, but to party mates on the board. The post has been so weak that there has not been a person with whom the proverbial buck stops. In effect, the county has lacked a chief executive officer — a ‘mayor,’ as it were.”
Chairmen chosen under the peer-elected system recognized the limitations that were put on the office. Frank St. Angel, considered one of the better chairmen under that system, led the pro-referendum committee in 1986.
“It’s not going to be the end of the world. County government will continue to bumble along, without anybody in charge,” St. Angel said after the referendum’s defeat. “We’re still not going to have visible, accountable leadership. It’ll be business as usual in county government.”
That doesn’t mean it can’t work. Stephenson County Board Chairman Bill Hadley has done an excellent job with the powers he has dealing with his 22-member board. He’s a part-time chairman who puts in full-time hours as he works for the residents of Stephenson County. However, Hadley would prefer the public elect the chairman rather than play politics with his peers every two years.
In Winnebago County, the chairman’s authority should not be left to the whims of 20 board members. If the board decides to keep the current system, it should clarify what the job is or isn’t so whoever is running in 2020 knows what he or she is getting into.
There are a lot of good things happening in Winnebago County but there are also huge challenges with blight, infrastructure and public safety. “Visible, accountable leadership” is the best way to address those problems.
I don’t know if I am required to hire outside counsel (expensive suburban lawyer paid by local taxpayers) in order to comment again on Winnebago County government matters, but I’m going to write anyway.
OK, so the County Board majority has turned the full-time chairman into a glorified doorkeeper, but he remains a doorkeeper elected by all the voters in the county at a salary and benefits of $120,624.37, according to county salary records.
Yet who would want to run to have such a nothing burger of a job? Certainly not Frank Haney, the current chairman, who said last week he won’t run for re-election in 2020.
Haney suggests that a question be put on the 2020 ballot asking voters whether they want a county executive form of government without home rule. There is such a thing, I’m told.
But if the question is put to a vote, I predict a repeat of what happened in 1988, when a similar ballot measure was soundly rejected by the county’s voters because opponents called it a backdoor plan to establish home rule, which proponents insisted it was not.
Interestingly, there actually had been a referendum 12 years before that, in 1976, to make Winnebago County a home rule county. It was defeated by a 5-to-1 margin, according to an article in the May 1976 copy of Illinois Issues, which I discovered online at the Northern Illinois University Library website.
According to the story by Jay Smith: “One analyst in Winnebago County attributed this occurrence to a voter distrust of the County Board itself, rather than a disaffection with the concept of home rule. How the board would implement home rule was the real concern.”
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Because home rule had been soundly rejected by Winnebago County voters in 1976, then stripped by voters from the city of Rockford in 1983, it was easy to convince people in 1988 that Winnebago County was secretly trying to bring back home rule even though the plan was to have a county executive without home rule.
City of Rockford voters rejected an attempt to bring back home rule on March 20, 2018, with 53.7 percent voting no. Although the vote was closer than the 1983 vote to throw out home rule, the real estate and landlord lobbies succeeded in sowing enough seeds of doubt to defeat home rule supporters.
What opponents got for their “no” campaign was a utility tax. Gee, thanks!
So what do we do about 2020? Does it make any sense even to have a countywide doorkeeper?
Because that’s what we’d have through 2024, a $120,000 doorkeeper, at least under the job created by the current County Board majority.
And on the 2020 ballot will we also see a referendum asking voters whether they want to have a county executive form of government, something that could not happen until after the 2024 election?
That makes no sense. But does anything make sense in the “You get a lawyer! You get a lawyer! You get a lawyer!” government we are stuck with for the next two years?
And if we do have a county executive referendum on the 2020 ballot, I’m sure the same old opponents will fire up their fog-making machines and warn everybody about the “hidden attempt to usher in home rule to raise your taxes.” Mark my words.
Heck, this County Board doesn’t need home rule to raise taxes; I’m willing to bet the current board majority will raise them this year.
I don’t think a county executive referendum will pass, unless some currently unknown community leaders emerge from under a rock to lead a pro-county executive campaign.
I don’t want to pay a full-time salary to a doorkeeper. So, let’s just discontinue the full-time doorkeeper job at the end of 2020 and return to having a parliamentary system with a chairman elected from among members of the board.
At least the new, part-time chairman would again be a board member with a vote and the ability to participate in debates! And we wouldn’t have to pay this next part-time chairman very much at all.
Why do I think I’m always watching the movie “Groundhog Day” in this town.
ROCKFORD — Winnebago County voters will decide in November whether to adopt an executive form of county government — if board member Jean Crosby has anything to say about it.
Board member John Butitta, R-8, asked members of the board’s Operations & Administrative Committee to put such a question on the general election ballot so voters can decide whether they want an executive form of county government. The committee rejected his request in a 4-2 decision Thursday, but Crosby vowed to personally collect 500 voter signatures to force a countywide referendum on the matter in November.
Voter approval of such a referendum would empower an elected ‘executive’ with duties and responsibilities codified by state law, thus preventing the board from passing ordinances to alter the duties of what is now the chief elected official of Winnebago County — the chairman.
Conflict with Chairman Frank Haney has prompted the board to approve about a dozen ordinances that have stripped Haney of much of his administrative power since he was elected by more than 60,000 voters in November 2016. Haney said in April that he would not seek re-election and would instead champion a November 2020 ballot initiative asking voters to adopt an executive form of county government. Butitta said voters deserve to have the opportunity to consider such a ballot question.
“I think the issue before us is not whether we are in favor of an executive form of government,” said Butitta on Thursday. “I think the issue is whether we are in favor of allowing the voters to have a say on whether they want an executive form of government.”
Board member Paul Arena, R-7, said he doesn’t favor placing such a question on the November 2020 ballot. State law requires that such a referendum be put to voters during a general election only. If approved, the governance switch would become effective in 2024, regardless of whether the question is put to voters in 2020 or in the following general election in 2022, Arena said.
Other county leadership questions facing the board complicate the idea of switching to an executive form of county government, Arena said. Namely, the board’s upcoming decision on hiring a county administrator, a process that was discussed by another County Board committee Thursday, though no action was taken.
Waiting until 2022 to put the governance referendum to voters would make better sense, Arena said.
″...At that time voters will have had time to experience the new administrator and a new chairman and right now we’re in an environment where there’s been some conflict on the board,” Arena said.
Board member Jim Webster, R-2, said placing such a referendum on the November ballot would impair the board’s ability to hire the best county administrator possible because any job candidate would want certainty about who he or she would report to and how long the administrator job might last in its present form. Webster is not a member of the committee. However, he is challenging another Republican candidate — Rockford Alderman Joe Chiarelli — for County Board chairman in the March 17 primary. Board member Burt Gerl, D-15, is the only Democrat seeking that party’s nomination for chairman.
On Thursday, only Butitta and Crosby voted in favor of placing the executive referendum on the November ballot. Board members voting no: Keith McDonald, R-6; Jaimie Salgado, D-12; Dorothy Redd, D-18; Joe Hoffman, D-10; and Arena. After the meeting, Crosby vowed to collect the signatures.
″...I think the committee sent a message tonight that they’re not willing to give up the control of the board,” said Crosby, R-16. ”...We want the voters to have control of what type of government they have. If they vote it up or if they vote it down, that’s their choice. I don’t want 20 people in a room — the County Board members — to make that vote for them.”
ROCKFORD — Jean Crosby wants your help deciding how Winnebago County should be governed, and all she needs is your signature.
If that sounds simple enough, it’s not. With a general election less than four months away, politicians, candidates and political activists are facing a vexing challenge to democracy: how to spread their message without spreading a virus.
The U.S. set a record for the highest single day of new COVID-19 cases for the second time last week with 66,627 cases on Friday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. And there were 1,317 confirmed new coronavirus cases in Illinois on Friday, the state’s highest single-day total since June 2. The Illinois Department of Public Health also reported 25 additional virus-related deaths on Friday, including three in Winnebago County.
Crosby, a Republican County Board member representing District 16 in northeast Rockford, wants to place a question on the Nov. 3 ballot that would allow voters to decide whether Winnebago County should adopt an executive form of county government.
“We’re within striking distance of 500 signatures — that’s the minimum number of voter signatures that we need — and we have about three weeks to go,” Crosby said. “But the goal is to have 700 or 800 voter signatures because we know the naysayers are going to challenge these petitions to smithereens.”
County fairs, corn boils and summertime festivals that draw big crowds have long been the kind of go-to events where election petitions collect signatures. But not this year.
County Board member John Butitta, R-8, and a few others are helping Crosby circulate petitions, but the work has been slow going, she said.
“There just aren’t any events you can attend to collect signatures and it’s not easy to go door to door and approach people with a mask on,” Crosby said.
“But I carry the petition pages with me wherever I go. So if I’m stuck at Napleton’s getting the oil changed in my car, I work the whole place.”
Crosby, a real estate broker, keeps a stack of petition papers at the front counter of her Berkshire Hathaway office at 551 N. Mulford Road in Rockford. Winnebago County voters are welcome to visit the office during weekday business hours to sign the petition, she said. Voters may also email her — firstname.lastname@example.org — to make arrangements to sign the petition.
In January, a County Board committee rejected Butitta’s request to place the executive county government question on the November ballot. Butitta and Crosby vowed to get the referendum on the ballot by collecting voters signatures themselves.
Approval of the executive county governance question would give an elected “executive” duties and responsibilities set forth by state law, thus preventing the County Board from passing ordinances to alter the duties of what is now the chief elected official of Winnebago County — the chairman.
Conflict with Chairman Frank Haney has prompted the board to approve about a dozen ordinances that have stripped Haney of much of his administrative power since he was elected by more than 60,000 voters in November 2016. Haney is suing the board in state and federal courts to reclaim his administrative power, though the lawsuits may not be resolved before the Nov. 3 election.
Two men are vying to replace Haney in the November election. County Board member Burt Gerl, a Democrat representing a southeast Rockford district, will face Republican Joe Chiarelli, who currently represents the 14th Ward on the Rockford City Council.
State law requires that an executive county government referendum be put to voters during a general election only. If approved, the governance switch would become effective in 2024, regardless of whether the question is put to voters in 2020 or in the following general election in 2022.
“The important thing is to just get this referendum on the ballot,” Crosby said. “Let’s decide what kind of government we want in Winnebago County and see what the electorate tells us.”
FORMS OF COUNTY GOVERNMENT - Illinois Association of County Board Members
The Illinois General Assembly, by statute, provides for three kinds of counties: counties under township organization, counties under a commission form, and counties under a county executive form of government.
Township Form - The Illinois Constitution of 1848 allowed voters in each county to choose to establish township governments or a county commission form of government. Today, 85 of the 102 counties in Illinois operate under the township form of government. Township counties usually operate with standing committees. These committees study the particular problems that arise within their areas of responsibility and submit recommendations to the full board for action. A county board member can also hold the office of township supervisor.
Commission Form - The commission form of government is the oldest and most traditional county organizational structure. Under the commission form, the county governing body consists of an elected board composed of three (3) or five (5) commissioners who serve as the legislative body and also perform executive functions. No single administrator or executive oversees a county's operations under the commission form of government. Each year the commissioners select one of themselves as chairperson, most often alternating the designation.
There are currently 17 counties operating under the commission form of government in Illinois: Alexander, Calhoun, Edwards, Hardin, Johnson, Massac, Menard, Monroe, Morgan, Perry, Pope, Pulaski, Randolph, Scott, Union, Wabash and Williamson.
County Executive Form - A county which has a chief executive officer is considered a "home rule unit". A county-wide referendum is required to establish this plan. Home rule counties have broad authority to provide for local government issues. The advantage of this designation is that, except as limited by State law, home rule counties may exercise any power and perform any function relating to its government and affairs, including the power to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; and to borrow money and levy taxes.
Cook County is the only home rule county in Illinois. Will County voters elected to go to a county executive form without home rule in 1988. Champaign County voters approved restructure to executive form in 2016.