Chair selection makes county board more fractured
URBANA — After a few years of relative calm, it appears the Champaign County Board is headed back to stormy times.
An already closely divided board — Democrats have a 12-10 advantage — is more fractured now after 10 Republicans and three Democrats united to make Democrat Alan Kurtz the county board chairman over Michael Richards, who had been endorsed earlier by the board's Democratic caucus over Kurtz. The last chairman, Democrat C. Pius Weibel, retired from the board.
Kurtz insisted Monday night after the vote that the board will come together.
"I know there might be a few ruffled feathers, but the point is we move forward. The business of the county comes first," he said.
Not everyone agreed.
"Obviously it's going to be a rough ride, the next two years I would say. Al's going to get pushback from the Democrats who still hold a majority of the votes," said Sadorus Republican Jonathan Schroeder, who in an unusual move was elected the vice chairman of the board, something like Paul Ryan becoming Barack Obama's vice president. "Since we've saddled ourselves with 22 members on the county board, an even number, we're probably going to have a lot of stalemates."
The new board has 22 members, down from the 27 it has had for 40 years.
"We've got a lot of angry people here tonight, and I think that's going to continue," Richards said shortly after the vote. "It's going to be much harder to get things done."
The two Democrats who sided with Kurtz over Richards also sounded pessimistic about any early unification.
"I can understand how upset (Richards) might be," said Astrid Berkson, a Champaign Democrat, who quickly added, "I'd better not say any more."
Ralph Langenheim, a member of the board since 1998, joked that "I've never known this board to be without turmoil" and said that while some Democrats eventually would get over Kurtz's coup, others wouldn't.
"As I've said over and over, there are three different Democratic parties on this board. There are the progressive Democrats, the business and professional Democrats, and the black caucus," he said. "And none of the three legs of that stool could run the show by themselves."
Langenheim said he had voted for Kurtz "because I considered him to be a better prospect for chair than Richards.
"He has unbounded energy and he works at it, and he has a record of carrying out his objectives. But I find him," he said with a long pause, "well, he's not a bosom pal."
Republicans said they agreed to back Kurtz because they had worked with him on several measures over the last four years and they trusted him.
"I feel that of the two of them we'll be able to work more effectively with Kurtz for the best interests of the county," said Mahomet Republican Gary Maxwell.
But Richards claimed that the GOP board members supported Kurtz because he abided by a deal they proposed. He produced an email that Mahomet Republican John Jay sent him last Wednesday.
Jay wrote in part to Richards, "Michael: Please forgive me for being too bold but here are my thoughts. Jon Schroeder Your Vice chair of county. good for both parties (that is assuming he is not elected as board chair)."
But Jay said Tuesday that he sent to Richards a list of committees and board positions that the GOP caucus wanted, but that it wasn't a negotiating piece. And he said he didn't send the list to Kurtz until Tuesday.
"Nobody believes me but I was not involved in negotiations," Jay said. "I had my caucus fill out what committees they wanted to serve on. That's what this started with. Richards called and asked what committees. When I got that information from my caucus, I went and forwarded it to Richards."
Kurtz insisted he did not agree to make Schroeder his vice chairman over the Democratic caucus nominee, Giraldo Rosales.
"There was no deal. I'm sorry, Mr. Schroeder is more qualified than Mr. Rosales, period," he said.
Schroeder, too, said "this was not planned, no." Asked if he'll be able to work with Kurtz, he said. "As well as anyone can work with Al Kurtz, yes."
Langenheim predicted that Schroeder's appointment to the No. 2 position probably wouldn't amount to much, although Republicans said it would help keep them in the communications loop.
"It only carries clout in the unusual case when the chair isn't there and there's something to decide and there are absences," Langenheim said.
Like Kurtz, Jay said the board eventually will work together.
"We went through this once before with Barb Wysocki. It was hard on both parties," he said, referring to the Urbana Democrat who was elected county board chairwoman in 2004, also over the Democratic caucus' choice. "Republicans were mad at us for voting with the Democrats and the Democrats were mad at them for working with the Republicans. I think this will all go away in the wash if people rise to the occasion and do what they have to do."