Big changes in store for board
New county board will have four new members and new leadership, but it still faces tough problems that need to be addressed in a bipartisan fashion.
The new Champaign County Board that will be sworn in early in December will be vastly different from the one leaving office, if for no other reason than the board is shrinking from 27 to 22 members as a result of redistricting, going from nine three-member districts to 11 two-member districts.
Perhaps more importantly, nine current board members won't be on the board next month, in addition to two who left earlier this year. The new board members will have some big shoes to fill. Those who are not returning have been some of the board's most effective, veteran members, many of whom were in leadership positions.
Among them are the most recent chair, Pius Weibel, longtime vice chair Tom Betz and finance committee chair Brendan McGinty, all Democrats. From the other side of the aisle are former board chair Steve Moser and Alan Nudo, former Republican caucus chair who resigned earlier this year. GOP board member Brad Jones, considered strong on budget and finance issues, also resigned in 2012. We wish all the board members who are not returning well and thank them for their service.
The loss of these members will mean a change in leadership and a void in experience as nearly half the board turns over, and the new members will have to get up to speed as quickly as possible because the county faces some pressing problems.
The county board is losing a lot of collective wisdom as it faces difficult issues such as what to do with the downtown Urbana jail facility, the nursing home's financial problems and the county budget. But no one is irreplaceable, and it's an opportunity for new ideas and new ways to deal with problems as newcomers join returning board veterans.
The fact that board Democrats gerrymandered the legislative map to the point that they guaranteed themselves a majority for probably the next decade leaves a bad taste. And the shame is that a handful of board members tried in 2011 to put together a bipartisan commission to draw map lines without regard to political influence. But majority Democrats used their power at the last minute to pass a political map.
In the just-concluded election, there were only three contested races in the 11 districts. As it stands, Republicans dominate rural districts, to the point that virtually no Democrats run there. Democrats dominate the city districts, to the point that virtually no Republicans run there.
Still, the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans on the board by a margin of 12-10 means that board members of both parties will have to cooperate to solve the problems facing the county.
Before Tuesday night's meeting, Republican board members caucused and met with Michael Richards, an incumbent and the Democratic Party's selection to be new board chairman.
Richards promised to "govern in collaboration" with Republicans. "The minute we start ticking you guys off, things aren't going to get done," Richards told the Republicans.
That gesture by the presumptive board chairman is a good start, and we hope that Richards, a political consultant who managed the campaign of state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson and congressional candidate David Gill until early September, can foster a bipartisan effort.
The Champaign County Board, once riven by partisan differences, has been a much different operation under the leadership of the last two chairs, Weibel and Barbara Wysocki, both Democrats who were considered fair to the Republican minority. Richards, despite his role as a political operative, has shown that he does not strictly follow the party line in his time on the board, and he will have to allow Republicans a say if the county is to address its challenges effectively.