There’s a lot of griping, much of it valid, about problems in the office of the Champaign County treasurer — which, when it was run by Dan Welch from 1998 to 2017, avoided controversy like a virus.
The office is having difficulty processing property-tax payments, and many taxpayers are getting notices that they’re being assessed a penalty for late payments. The recently appointed treasurer, Marisol Hughes, says the penalties will be removed if payments were made on time. But that won’t eliminate the belief that the office is being poorly run or that a change must be made.
Voters will get a chance to elect a new county treasurer this fall, although it’s not clear who the candidates will be.
What is clear is that there’s still a lot of misunderstanding about county government in Illinois and the consequences of elections.
I’ve heard people blame the current mess on student voters who don’t know the community, only vote by party and end up foisting bad candidates on the rest of us. This is a common but erroneous complaint.
In the 2018 election, Democrat Laurel Prussing (later replaced by Hughes) defeated Republican John Farney by 6,599 votes, or more than
8 percentage points. Prussing won every precinct in Champaign-Urbana except one, and Farney won virtually every precinct outside the cities. The student vote alone did not award the election to Prussing.
Another common complaint is that the office shouldn’t be elected. I agree, and would contend that few other county offices need to be elected. But that would require changing the Illinois Constitution and overturning hundreds of years of state and national history.
Illinois has had elected county treasurers, judges, clerks, sheriffs, coroners and clerks of the circuit court since at least 1870. And when the delegates to the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention had the opportunity to eliminate some of those offices, they whiffed.
“There was significant disagreement in the committee and on the floor on how far the convention dared go in reducing the number of county officers required by the 1870 Constitution,” said a report on the convention by Joan Anderson and Ann Lousin in the John Marshall Law Review. “The majority of the Local Government Committee mandated the election of a sheriff, clerk and treasurer for four-year terms.”
The opposition to any changes came from — who else? — the existing county officers. The convention ended up agreeing that each county must elect a sheriff, county clerk and treasurer, and that they may elect or appoint a coroner, recorder, assessor, auditor “and such other officers as provided by law or by county ordinance.”
The tradition of electing county officerholders continues in most states. According to a 2009 survey by the National Association of Counties, 30 states have elected county treasurers. Only two — Alaska and Vermont — have appointed county treasurers.
Every state but California, Hawaii, Nebraska and New Jersey has elected sheriffs.
States surrounding Illinois have similar elected county offices. Iowa has elected county treasurers, auditors, sheriffs, recorders and attorneys. Wisconsin has elected sheriffs, coroners, district attorneys, registers of deeds and clerks of the court. The office of county treasurer does not exist.
Indiana counties have an elected auditor, clerk of the court, coroner, prosecuting attorney, recorder, treasurer, sheriff and surveyor, and most counties also elect an assessor and county clerk.
Since the Illinois Constitution mandates an elected county treasurer (as well as sheriff and county clerk), the only way to appoint them or eliminate the offices is by amending it. That would first require the Legislature to put the question on the ballot or call for another constitutional convention.
The only other way is for voters to approve a call for a constitutional convention. They automatically get that chance every 20 years. The next time will be in 2028.