With the subject of county board organization looming again, itŐs a good time to stretch our imaginations and realize there are more options for the county to conduct business than acting as a committee of the whole or with the committee system. For the most part, the committee system served the board well until the last few years, but the problem of a committee chair taking ownership of his respective facility and becoming a cheerleader rather than an objective overseer, has been around a long time.
I can remember a chairman of the Landfill Committee, years ago, who honestly didnŐt believe he worked under the auspices of the county board. He was sure he was running his own business and the rest of us could just Ňbutt out,Ó as they say. As a member of the Finance Committee, when I started trying to discuss the finances of the nursing home in the early 1990s, the nursing home committee chairman showed up in a matching t-shirt along with union members, protesting any such discussion.
On the other hand, nothing has angered me more than being on the Highway Committee and working for eight months to make a decision for replacement of the burned down Wolf covered bridge and have our recommendation to the board ignored. It was based on cost comparisons, citizen statements to court reporters, public hearings and recommendations from state and local highway officials. Unfortunately, the issue became political and emotional, a couple of rich farmers in the area, (who never bothered to testify), threw their weight around, and the committeeŐs work was disregarded. We now have a bridge that is not a state historic site, is not practical and contrary to promises made by a state highway official at the time, will forever have to be maintained by Knox County.
One can think back on successful accomplishments of county board committees, such as the committee to build the public safety building in the 1970s. The Mary Davis home and Landfill Ccommittees have hired good administrators and helped plan for expansion and success. The same can be said of the Highway Committee and Executive Committees, which interviewed and recommended to the board the Supervisor of Assessments, public defenders, zoning administrators and other personnel. The Planning Committee has updated rules for the board and the personnel policy and recommended reducing the size of the board. The finance committees have been good watchdogs of the county budget and expenditures and worked with the treasurer to that end.
However, when the county board decided to change to a committee of the whole a year ago, I was all for it. Of course, this action was on the heels of a disturbing situation at the nursing home, where the committee and an ad hoc committee had made several very expensive and unacceptable proposals for use of the tax referendum money approved in 2002. Thank goodness one of the board members was absent the night of that vote or the proposal, costing millions of dollars, would have passed. One of the last actions of the outgoing board in November of 2003 was to hire a new nursing home director and one of the first actions of the current board was to dissolve all committees, including the ad hoc committee making decisions about the nursing home referendum funds. It was a good move.
So, the county board has been meeting twice a month, with the members receiving detailed packets before the meetings, containing lists of all the bills for approval and other background material. ItŐs a welcome change. Having served on the county for a term in the 1970s and one in the 1990s, I received one sheet of an agenda for our monthly meetings, with no background material. I once attended a special meeting of the board without even being informed of the reason for meeting. Color that Ňillegal.Ó
My experience on the current board has been encouraging. This is a board with members who are issue-oriented and donŐt give a hoot about political party affiliation. The election of the chairman and vice-chair were the last political moves made. It appears the board is split about how it should be organized, but not along party lines.
IŐve decided the committee of the whole arrangement doesnŐt work very well. Our chairwoman has had a difficult year with a new system and has done an exceptional job, but she, and any chairman, would be overburdened with this system. First, the recently fired county administrator was not being utilized enough. Secondly, the County Clerk is constitutionally designated as the secretary of the board. HeŐs not, however, supposed to be the county administrator. He doesnŐt have the time or money to fill that role and with elections next year, he cannot be expected to do all that he is called upon to do now, such as reviewing all the bills.
There are a number of problems that exist because our chairman has no support system of board members in place. Putting a committee system in place again would provide a board structure whereby board members would be taking more responsibility and control of board work.
What are other options?
Hire another county administrator, and it doesnŐt have to be a high-powered executive. A high-energy and ambitious friend of mine said to me, ŇI could do that job part-time for half the money.Ó I believe her. Do you know that the county administratorŐs phone number was never published in the phone book? Apparently, neither the former administrator nor county board members thought it was important.
County board chairman elected at large. Years ago the Peoria Journal Star editorialized, ŇIf you think about it, it makes little sense to have countywide elections for circuit clerk, treasurer ------and other administrative offices but not for the head of the countyŐs chief policy-making body. If you think about it, it makes little sense to elect every mayor who heads every city government in the county but leave the county board chairmanŐs selection up to politicians.Ó
a. The chair could be elected by the public as a board member, and the term would be two years.
b. The chair could be elected not as board member, like a mayor, but have veto power and break tie votes. The term would be four years.
c. The elected chairman could be paid to chair the board and administer the work full time, eliminating the need for a county administrator. If the people donŐt approve of his or her performance, thereŐs always election time.
County Executive Officer may be elected by any county as provided by law, but the system must be approved by referendum, accompanied by a vote that the county should become a Home Rule county. The board would then have the power to raise taxes, for example, and not be just an extension of state government, as it is now. The question can be put on the ballot by the county board or by citizen initiative. This referendum is not passed in most counties because of the Home Rule provision.
All of these options can be adopted with or without board committees. But with a budget of over $30,000 million, the county should be depending on all its board members for leadership and day-to-day implementation of county board business.
At this point, I will vote for the committee system, hiring at least a part time administrator and work for the election of the board chairman by the public.