An elected executive?

An elected executive?

The fall election is likely to become even more interesting now that two local groups are calling for dramatic change in Champaign County government.

Champaign County government may have its share of problems, but it's hard to imagine that a shortage of elective offices is one of them.

That's why proponents of an elected county executive will bear a heavy burden as they attempt to persuade voters to replace an appointed county administrator, who works for the 22-member county board, with an elected executive who runs countywide and exercises veto power over board action.

Voters in Champaign County already have turned this plan down four times. So it's clear there is no great demand for this proposed change. Further, the idea carries with it the strong smell of partisan politics that raises additional questions about the proponents' sincerity.

It's tough enough to explain why substantive changes in the rules of government are in the public's best interest without having to fend off credible claims that the measure is really an effort by one party or political faction to subvert another.

The measure has the joint backing of the Champaign County's Farm Bureau and Chamber of Commerce. Supporters are in the process of collecting the required 500 signatures, a relatively paltry number, to put the issue on the fall ballot. If it passes, the office would be filled by election in 2018.

The elected executive would relate to the current county board in much the same way the governor does to the Legislature. The elected executive could veto legislation (with a three-fifths vote required to override), make appointments, set meeting agendas and oversee the implementation of legislation.

In other words, it would be a beefed up version of the current board chairman's post, which is filled by a vote of the board. Under the current approach, the board chairman is beholden to a majority of board members, usually members of the chairman's political party. Under the proposed change, the elected executive's political base would be the voters.

Why do proponents contend this change is necessary? They suggest that more power in the executive would generate more activity by the board as it attempts to address day-to-day county issues as well as more serious problems that include the county's nursing home.

Theoretically, that may be correct. But energy in the executive cuts both ways — energy to do what?

Further, it assumes that the elected executive is going to be somewhat akin to the current appointed county administrator — a skilled professional who approaches complicated issues in a methodical way and knows how to manage subordinates.

That represents a dramatic leap of faith. Assuming the position is approved by voters, the elected executive may well be just some ambitious pol with nothing much to offer other than a desire to hold a well-paid elective post.

Filling positions that require professional expertise — auditor, treasurer, county sheriff — by election carries substantial risk.

Proponents also suggest the change would be beneficial because the current board is divided both by party and personality. That may well be true. But addressing problems caused by partisanship with more partisanship hardly seems like an effective solution.

It's no secret that farm and business interests are not thrilled with Democratic control of the board. An elected county executive could go a long way to neutering that disadvantage, assuming proponents are able to elect a Republican.

But there are no guarantees. Maybe current Democratic Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing, the longtime former auditor, would be interested in running for the executive post.

Republicans have an advantage in countywide races, but not an insurmountable one.

It is, however, understandable that Republican interests resent their minority status on the board. As a consequence of gerrymandering, board Democrats have drawn the 11 district boundary lines (two members per district) in a way that ensures they maintain a 12-10 majority. Democrats win Champaign-Urbana districts while Republicans carry the rural districts.

Republicans want to remove the Democrats' thumb on the electoral scale and replace it with a GOP thumb.

How about this as a solution: no thumb on the scale and a fair fight between the parties on Election Day.

That would require nonpartisan drawing of county board district lines like the one voters almost got a few years ago. At the last minute, Democrats passed a partisan map, undermining a well-intentioned effort led by board members Steven Beckett, a Democrat, and Al Nudo, a Republican, to approve a nonpartisan one.

Under a nonpartisan map, both parties could compete on a level playing field, knowing that whoever wins would have to produce or risk losing the majority at the next election.

That approach, however, is pie in the sky, at least for now.

It's hard to imagine that the elected executive issue won't be on the fall ballot. The idea might have merit; it certainly has flaws. That's why voters need to listen carefully and weigh the pros and cons as this campaign effort unfolds.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion

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aberkson wrote on July 03, 2016 at 11:07 am

Both the County Administrator and the County Board Chair are full time jobs. Hiring an elected person to do both just means we will have to hire someone else to help, a patronage job. The powers of this new county boss are far greater than the combined powers of the current Chair and Administrator. Since he can only be stopped by a 60% vote, which is unlikely in an almost eveny split county board, this is an invitation to favoritism and even corruption. Since he is unlikely to be experienced enough and competent to run a major enterprise, we will probably have to hire people to do the work anyway, leaving us with another expensive and unneeded county official, but this one with great power.