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Proposed bill to let voters to choose county board chair draws mixed reviews

A proposed bill in the House would allow voters in larger counties the opportunity to elect their county board chairman.

House Bill 3953, filed by State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, applies to counties with more than 300,000 residents, and would give voters the ability to elect the position, rather than have board members appoint him or her.

The new bill would likely only affect McHenry and Lake counties, with populations of 308,760 and 703,462, respectively, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data. Leaders of other larger counties, including Cook, Kane and DuPage, are already popularly elected.

“I don’t understand, especially in Illinois with so much corruption, why we don’t embrace reforms that empower voters,” Franks said of the reasoning behind the bill. “We need to do everything we can to get people involved.”

If approved, the process would begin during the November general election. The current term would end Dec. 31, with the newly elected chairman taking office in January 2013, according to the bill.

McHenry County Board Chairman Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, views the proposal as a personal attack against him. Koehler and Franks have butted heads in the past over several county issues.

“This is a typical Jack Franks anti-Ken Koehler move,” Koehler said. “Nothing has been thought out at all with what he has put out there. This is targeted directly at me.”

Franks was surprised by the accusations.

“I don’t spend that much time thinking about (Ken Koehler), and it’s the height of arrogance to think that this is about him,” he said. “These offices don’t belong to the board members, they belong to the citizens of the county.”

The McHenry County Board turned down an opportunity to make the change last year without having to go to referendum during redistricting discussions.

The County Board currently appoints the chairmanship every two years, with the next appointment expected in December. Koehler, a more than decade-long member of the board, is in the final year of his term.

“The people that are County Board members have a pretty good idea as to who may or may not be the best leader for the board,” he said. “In a larger county of more than 500,000, electing makes more sense, but not here.”

The bill will be a top priority for Franks when the General Assembly reconvenes later this month. It was referred to the state’s rules committee last week.

McHenry County “can’t pretend that it’s rural anymore,” Franks said. “The time has come for the board to come into the 21stcentury and allow citizens to have a say in this.”

Voters should elect the board chairman in larger counties, according to DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, R-Elmhurst.

“It creates greater accountability and a more direct link between the chairman and the taxpayers,” he said. “A countywide election that engages hundreds of thousands of voters rather than a handful of elected officials is a far more accountable process.”

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