By Paul Gorski
Two weeks ago, some Republican Winnebago County Board members proposed changes to what duties the board and the chairman of the board are responsible for, and to whom they are responsible to.
In a nutshell, the changes involve: 1) creating a new committee within the county board, the executive committee; 2) allowing the executive committee to define what, how and when the Board Chairman reports certain financial information to the board; and 3) requires all appointments by the chairman be reviewed and approved by this committee first.
There are disclaimers that note this ordinance (law) would not override any existing law in state statute regarding the chairman or the board.
These proposed changes inspired fiery editorial responses in the Register Star, stating this was a power grab by the board, and voters we being denied the strong county executive they voted for so many years ago. The Republican candidate for chairman, Frank Haney, echoed those comments, indignant that the board was trying to take powers away from the chairman’s position.
Whoa! First, the proposed executive committee is not a new idea or invention; the county board used to have an executive committee and the board has the right to create an executive committee. Creating an executive committee in itself is not a power grab.
Haney and the Star’s editorial board, not understanding what authority the chairman actually has, and what state laws says, thought this was an attempt to steal power from the chairman. Maybe, maybe not. Simple research would have shown that state law does not allow the board to dictate what duties the chairman has. That is to say, the board cannot tell the chairman what to do. Even if that was the board’s attempt, it is not going to happen. Just folks getting on their soapboxes.
I’m not sure where board members got the idea they could tell the chairman what to do, but they were wrong. But they were not wrong about having input on appointments and hiring. Nearly all appointments made by the chairman are with the consent of, and votes by, the board members. If board members simply want input earlier in the process, I think that is a reasonable request. Again, I wish those involved would just read the laws regarding these issues.
Despite the power grab misinformation, the board can take some decisions out of the hands of the chairman: those board decisions delegated to the chairman.
In the past, the board allowed the chairman to make some hiring decisions that the board itself was responsible for. The board has historically given and taken these responsibilities away, the first time when Kris Cohn was chairman. This give and take is not new or is it newsworthy.
In all of this news coverage there seem to be only two people who understand the different facets of this debate: Chuck Prorok, former Assistant State’s Attorney, and John Nelson, Democratic candidate for County Board Chairman. Prorok has stated there were clearly conflicts between the ordinance and state law, and Nelson, based on conversations I had with him back in 2008, understands this as well.
Nelson and I both sought the Democratic nomination in the chairman’s race in 2008. Through debate, I learned Nelson understood the role of chairman better than most. He told me that setting the tone for the county board was a huge responsibility and that we needed someone to take the lead in driving economic development and job creation. Having a long list of responsibilities was not as important as was working with board members to improve our county.
My philosophy is similar but differs in that I see the chairman and the board as the glue that binds the independent units of government; helping those governments achieve their goals. Creating shared goals, a shared plan. I can live with Prorok’s and Nelson’s interpretations of the chairman and board roles though.
I hope reason and the law prevail in this matter.