Bacon is in the pan: Greg Bacon elected new Knox County Board chair
by Mike Kroll
Following a very successful November election, Knox County Democrats amassed solid party control of the 15-member Knox County Board. Only six sitting members now are Republicans and this permitted the suspense-free election of Greg Bacon (D-2) in a straight party-line vote. Outgoing board chair and Republican Allen Pickrel (R-1) nominated Wayne Saline (R-4) and George Knapp (D-4) attempted to insert Lyle Johnson (D-1) as a wildcard in the race for board chair but that nomination died for lack of a second. Johnson and Bill Abel (R-2) were nominated for vice-chairman but Johnson also held the support of all the Democrats and was also elected 9-6 to that position. A motion was passed to make that vote unanimous.
Other than electing the chair and vice-chair, the only other business conducted at this organizational meeting of the County Board was a vote to continue monthly meetings with assigned committees rather than meeting twice monthly as a “committee of the whole” where all county business is discussed in detail by the entire Board. Historically the County Board has almost always operated under the committee system with varying number of committees. The elected Board chair defines the committee structure and assigns committee members and appoints chairs of each. The County Board tried the committee-of-the-whole approach when Jan Occhi was chair preceding Pickrel but opted to return to the committee system after one two-year cycle.
The three new Board members just elected were sworn in and board member Stephen Johnson (R-5) announced after the November election that he would be stepping down from the Board because he moved out of his district and into Galesburg. It is expected that a replacement for Johnson's seat will be appointed at the next meeting. By law, it must be a Republican. David Serven, that party’s unsuccessful candidate for the District 5 seat won by Jeff Jefferson, is the expected appointee to that position. He was at the organizational meeting and appears to have support from members of both parties.
After his election, Bacon announced that he hadn't yet determined how he would define the Board committees or who would be assigned where. “I just didn't want to do that until I knew if I was going to be elected chair. I sort of expect to change things around a bit but nothing is settled in my mind just yet. I am open to suggestions and I'm sure I will make some changes in committee structure and membership but I don't want to lose the value of board experience in the process.” During the meeting, Bacon announced that until the regular December board meeting on the 23rd, things will remain essentially the same as before the election but that he would get in contact with each County Board member within the next few days to discuss their roles beginning in January.
Asked what he sees as the most important issues to be dealt with by the County Board in the next year, Bacon pointed to solving the problems with the courthouse and developing a sensible long-term solution to the county's space needs. Recent discussions of remodeling and expanding the existing courthouse have yielded few attractive answers. The existing courthouse is too small to meet all of the county's space needs. The old building also needs substantial work to modernize and make it a safe and practical place to conduct county business. The cost of doing such work has been estimated at over $20 million but adding the necessary additional space and parking on the current site may not be feasible or sensible at any price tag and Knox County simply doesn't have the necessary funds to take on such a costly project. Nevertheless, County space needs and other problems at the courthouse have reached a near-crisis situation and the County Board will be forced to take some action over the next few years. Bacon has previously stated that he prefers a solution that puts all the County’s offices under one roof — pretty much eliminating remodeling the current courthouse.
Bacon also sees the ongoing faltering economy as a concern that the County Board will need to help address. Knox County has been losing both jobs and population as the American economy descended into recession but local economic problems predate the current national economic crisis. Just last month the County Board voted to renew their participation in the Galesburg Regional Economic Development Association for at least another year along with maintaining the County's $30,000 financial commitment. GREDA has faced criticism for years for its lack of success but just since this summer the criticism has become much more militant and widespread and many expected either the County Board or the City of Galesburg — or both — to cease participation in GREDA.
Bacon was one of those voices of dissent with GREDA but he was won over by the group's high-profile campaign to once again plead for another chance. It is expected that the Galesburg City Council will likewise support at least a one-year renewal of their GREDA participation with a vote before the end of the year. “I want to give GREDA another chance but I will insist on greater County participation and input on the economic development efforts. I hope they change their meeting times so that I can become directly involved but their current early morning meetings conflict with my work hours. If I must, I will appoint someone else to sit on the GREDA board but whoever represents the Knox County Board needs to be very active and report back to the Board.”
Another reoccurring issue that faces the County Board is the position of a county administrator. A vocal minority of County Board members are adamant that a county administrator be hired. They’ve tried this before and it was far from a success. Part of that had to do with the constant friction between the County Board and several elected officials who are no longer in office. Officials at all levels say the cooperation between the various offices is much improved but neither the County Board nor the county-wide elected officials have ever been able to come to a consensus on exactly what the duties and responsibilities should be for a county administrator — if a good one could be hired. The last time they attempted to recruit candidates for the administrator position, the pool of applicants was weak. Bacon would take no position on this issue Monday night other than to say “as far as I am concerned it is certainly not a dead issue but I don't see us doing anything about an administrator this fiscal year.”