By Stuart R. Wahlin
In November 2010, Winnebago County voters will have more choices to make when casting their ballots.
Aug. 11, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed into law a bill granting citizens a say in who will oversee the business of the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District.
Presently, Winnebago County Board members double as forest preserve commissioners—dual roles that have, at times, put them in difficult positions when trying to balance development and preservation.
County Board member Bob Kinnison (R-10) serves as chairman of the Forest Preserve District’s executive committee, which got the ball rolling toward the restructuring.
“The current executive board has served the district, the county and the citizens well, but as both commissioners and board members, we are often challenged to make the best decision as our roles and objectives often clash,” he acknowledged. “Where economic development is attractive to a board member, it is often unattractive as a forest preserve commissioner.”
The new law means voters will elect seven at large, nonpartisan forest preserve commissioners to replace the 28 County Board members as stewards of Winnebago County Forest Preserve District’s nearly 10,000 acres, and its nearly $10 million budget.
County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) explained: “We’re hoping to have those that are very sensitive to land-use issues, maybe some of the services the forest preserve provides, and the challenges they face. Like any unit of government, they have financial challenges. But the bottom line is this is something that we’ve been trying to do for a long, long time, so I’m thrilled.”
Tom Kalousek, executive director of the forest preserves, said he has mixed emotions about the shift.
“We were formed in 1922, and I think the governance structure was probably appropriate, meaning that we had the same county board providing the leadership and the decision-making,” Kalousek indicated. “But times have changed. There’s different conflicting interests, and I think what’s significant now is, 88 years later, we’ve had the opportunity to change the course and direction of an organization whose sole purpose is to preserve the natural environment, the open space, or the education and the recreation of the public.”
Although the new governance is aimed partly at keeping politics out of the county’s preserves, Kalousek noted the change in governance could attract a whole new challenge.
“We’re now going to have a lot of special-interest groups running for these positions, whether it’s the hunting community, or the ATV community, or the golfing community, or anybody who hasn’t felt that they’ve gotten a fair crack at whatever they think they want to do,” he said. “I am hoping that it will be able to attract broad, visionary—I hate to say the word ‘altruistic,’ but people that are looking at what’s good for the environment, and not necessarily what a special-interest group would or may want to be able to do.”
Because the new board will be nonpartisan and unpaid, Kalousek said he’s hopeful it will make decisions in the best interest of the entire community.
“So many times, we in America have such a short history; we don’t think long-term, and five years, 10 years seems like a long way out,” Kalousek added. “But we really need to make decisions for the next 500 years, of where will greenways and spaces and corridors be?”
Kinnison thinks zoning issues will continue to be the biggest challenge the new board will face, but he’s confident the process will yield good candidates.
“My advice is to vet all candidates with the highest of prejudice,” Kinnison added, echoing Kalousek’s concern. “Although these new commissioners will be at large and nonpartisan, it doesn’t mean they won’t have their own objectives.”
Kinnison noted it would only take four members of like mind to gain majority control of the board.
DuPage County’s forest preserve district is the only other in Illinois to have been granted the ability to create a stand-alone board.
In November 2008, county voters decisively approved, by 69 percent, an advisory referendum to support the split.
The following month, the district’s executive committee approved $17,500, plus travel expenses, for lobbyist Kip Kolkmeier to carry that momentum to Springfield, where the bill was introduced to the Illinois House of Representatives. In March, only Rep. Sandy Cole (R-62) voted against the measure. Cole represents Lake County, which is also seeking separation of its forest preserves from its county board.
The bill unanimously passed the state Senate in May, and was forwarded to the governor’s desk in June.
Although the governance structure will change by having separate forest preserve commissioners elected, no new taxing body is being created as a result.
Nomination packets and petitions will be available in January to individuals interested in becoming forest preserve commissioners.
From the Aug. 19-25, 2009 issue