Updated: Oct 23, 2020
I take democracy seriously. I’ve been arrested for it. I’ve marched across New Hampshire in the middle of winter for it. I’ve been to countless protests, marches, and teach-ins (both as teacher and student) - all in support of this ideal we call democracy. Government not only by the people, but for the people. Fighting for it is an on-going battle.
My focus has been on the money, and the myriad of ways money corrupts our democracy. Voter suppression and gerrymandering are two other well-known degraders of democracy. Here in Winnebago County, our County Board has come up with some new tools. In March of 2019, the Board effectively altered the outcome of the November 2016 Chairman’s race using maneuvers even well-informed voters didn’t know were possible. What they did shouldn’t have been legal, but was, due to a poorly designed county government structure.
In 2016 the current Chairman beat his opponent 53% to 47%. At the time of the election the chairman position was a countywide, at-large elected position with a certain set of powers. I’ve discussed this with many voters and they all thought the Chairman - County Board relationship was analogous to a mayor and a city council, each position separate with its own set of powers. So when the Board voted to strip the Chair of much of his power in March 2019, voters were left wondering, “Can they do that?”
They could, because the at-large elected chairman’s position with it’s certain set of powers was created by the Board, and what the Board creates, the Board can take away. And apparently they can take it away even in the middle of a term, effectively disenfranchising the 60,000 voters who intended to endow a particular person with a particular set of powers for four years. A group of voters have filed suit against the Board Members who supported the ordinances, and that suit is pending in federal court.
This is chaos. It isn’t about Chairman Haney. This is about ensuring visible, accountable, consistent leadership for Winnebago County. There should never have been an at-large elected chair position which could be stripped of it's power mid-term at the whim of the board.
The good news is the people now have an opportunity to be heard. There will be a referendum on the ballot that will allow voters to decide whether Winnebago County should adopt the executive form of county government.
Adopting the executive form of county government would create an at-large elected county executive whose duties and responsibilities are set forth by state statute, not the County Board, like a “county mayor.” It would make real what most of us already thought we had.
These issues of government structure are complex and not to be taken lightly. Winnebago County can now have a public discussion about how county government should be structured. It’s a discussion that’s desperately needed, regardless of the outcome of the referendum.
I’ve assembled some informative articles on the subject in this google doc. It’s a long read, but definitely worth the time if you care about our county government.