Updated: Oct 23, 2020
ROCKFORD — Since the early 1990s the office of Winnebago County Board chairman has been decided by voters.
At least two County Board members want to make sure it remains that way.
On Thursday, board members Jean Crosby, R-16, and John Butitta, R-8, submitted a 596-signature petition to the Clerk of the Circuit Court seeking to place on the November ballot a question that would allow voters to decide the form of government they want for the county.
The chairman is a countywide elected position. However, under the current township form of government, the 20-member County Board can decide to choose the chairman from among themselves.
If voters approve the ballot question, the chairman’s duties and responsibilities also would be secured by state law, thus preventing the board from passing ordinances to alter the duties of the chairman.
Crosby said: “I feel, as well as John Butitta who assisted me with this, that the type of government that Winnebago County should have should be at the choice of the constituents. So by putting this on the ballot, it will allow us to have a countywide elected executive who would govern the county.”
The proposed ballot question was born out of more than three years of strife between between board members and Chairman Frank Haney. Since Haney’s election in November 2016, the County Board has enacted about a dozen ordinances that have stripped Haney of much his administrative power. Haney is not seeking re-election but supports allowing voters to decide whether to adopt an executive form of county government.
On Thursday, Haney said: “Do I believe the current county structure, when misused as it has been the past 3 1/2 years, can disenfranchise voters, overturn election results, prevent reform and protect the status quo? Absolutely. It is refreshing to see voter choice respected by placing this decision in the hands of the taxpayers, not politicos, self-interests and the old guard.”
Butitta also said voters deserve to have the opportunity to consider the ballot question.
“Here’s the thing: We have a countywide elected board chairman who makes $100,000 a year. Right now, 90% of his powers have been taken away,” Butitta said. “We have two gentleman running in November for the same $100,000 job who aren’t going to have a whole lot to do. Now the County Board can give back those powers to the County Board chairman or they could decide to eliminate the County Board chairman as being elected. It’s all up to the County Board right now.”
Rockford Alderman Joseph Chiarelli, R-14, and County Board member Burt Gerl, D-15, are vying for the chairman’s seat. “It is the right of citizens to circulate petitions, collect the required number of signatures, and then file that petition to have a referendum question on the ballot. That is democracy and the people will decide that question on November 3,” Chiarelli said.
Gerl said the form of government is an important decision but one that does not need to made in November. “What the voters need to know is that a new chairperson will be seated in December along with some new board members,” Gerl said. “The executive form of government puts too much power in the hands of a few instead of many. Change will be upon us soon. There will be some time before this proposal would even take effect — 2024 to be exact. Let us decide in 2022. If the voters of this county still think the board needs change, let us decide then.”
If the referendum passes, the change in government would take effect in 2024, regardless of whether the question is put to voters in 2020 or in the following general election in 2022.
Crosby said a judge will have to sign off on the petition before the question is placed on the ballot.