By Scot Bretram
Illinois News Network
Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney has a clear mission statement.
“Our goal every day is to work to become the most accountable, collaborative, and transparent unit of government in the state of Illinois,” Haney said.
Winnebago County is the most-populous Illinois county outside of the Chicago area and is home to the city of Rockford. Haney took the reins of the county government earlier this year, and recent headlines underscored the urgent need for change.
“We’re a county that had the FBI investigating how it did business,” Haney said. “We had our purchasing director in the prior administration go to jail for stealing a bunch of money. We gotta make sure, now that we’re pivoting away from that, we learn all the lessons we can learn, that we apply best practice everywhere we can.”
Haney ran on a platform of 19 reforms to make government more accountable and transparent to taxpayers. He plans to implement a “report card” system to publically evaluate how money is being spent by departments inside Winnebago County. He already has restructured the leadership team and led the county board in taking steps to eliminate any chance of cronyism and nepotism in hiring.
“You’re not going to have an elected official hiring five immediate family members inside county government,” Haney said. “When you’re doing that, it’s very hard for people to believe that you’re really trying to hire the best.”
Beyond that, Haney said he is looking at other ways to make the county more efficient at a time when dollars are becoming scarcer.
“We don’t have money to fight about anymore,” Haney said. “We have to look at ways to either consolidate how we’re doing business or how we share resources [with other local governments]. What are 10-15 things that we can do joint purchasing on? What are 10-15 things where we can share equipment between units of government locally? What are some jobs we can share?”
Ted Biondo is a long-time member of the Winnebago County Board who endorsed Haney in last year’s election.
“[Haney] really knows what his goals are and what he wants to do,” Biondo said. “He made an analogy in his State of the County address to people in a boat. If you’re all paddling in the same direction, you can do more than if even one person is paddling in the other direction.”
Haney said he simply wants everyone in the area to work together to better serve the community.
“We are serious about a day-to-day approach to remembering who the boss is,” Haney said. “And it isn’t the chairman, it isn’t the county board, it isn’t your state rep or your mayor. It’s actually the people paying the bill – the taxpayers. When you’re clear on that one thing I think it sets the compass the right way.”
Biondo said he is noticing a difference, even early in Haney’s term.
“It’s accountability and it’s actually being transparent with the board itself,” Biondo said. “Allowing us to ask questions and make suggestions. It’s an inclusive thing that’s been generated.”
Haney said he hopes the changes aren’t only restricted to how government operates.