Winn. Co. Board members investigating changes to county structure

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ROCKFORD (WREX) — While Chairman Frank Haney fights a lawsuit to retrieve his powers, Winnebago County board members are considering changes to the county’s governmental structure.

Board members say this is the right time to conduct a research-intensive overview of different governing structures because of all the ordinance changes the Board has made within the last year.

“We wanted to take the opportunity to look into it thoroughly and see what other communities do and make sure that, moving forward, Winnebago County has the most appropriate structure for a county our size,” Board member Paul Arena said.

In Illinois, counties with large populations, like Cook, DuPage and Will Counties, the chairman is elected by voters. Since the mid-1980s, that’s also been true of Winnebago County, even though the county structure falls under the form of township government.

“The chairman [in a township] is appointed from within the Board as a member and serves for two years,” Arena said. “So what we’re doing is an exception.”

Arena explained the reason for the exception is because Winnebago County falls around the middle on the list of Illinois county populations. Being relatively big though, he believes it makes sense to elect a chairman. He added the amount of work that comes with the position makes it a full-time job.

Board member Jim Webster disagrees.

“I believe in 87 counties in Illinois, the chairman is appointed by the Board,” Webster explained. “It’s the most traditional manner of operating.”

Webster said a county-appointed chairman has the potential to save taxpayers money.

“An elected at-large chairman costs taxpayers close to $500,000,” Webster argued.

He believes a full-time chairman is an “unnecessary and unproductive luxury.” He said the county needs to focus on addressing its mandated expenditures first.

Though Chairman Haney strongly disagrees with Webster’s assessment of the job of chairman, he and Webster, in completely separate interviews, proposed the same idea.

“What I’d like to see happen is that we get input from the community instead of all these politicos, myself included,” Chairman Haney said. “Let’s let the community speak.”

Webster echoed Haney.

“Let the voters make the decision, I’m fine with that,” Webster said.

Currently, the Board is still in the reviewing stage of the process and nothing is on the table. However, if the Board did want to move forward with an overhaul of the governing body in Winnebago County, that change would have to come in the form of a referendum on the November 2020 ballot.

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