Breaking it Down: Executive Form of Government Referendum

In the next installment of our in-depth series, 23 News explores a ballot question facing voters in Winnebago County, concerning a change in the form of government.
Published: Oct. 16, 2020 at 6:24 PM CDT
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WINNEBAGO COUNTY, Ill. (WIFR) - “This really is a question of a government system, and a system that the people, all the people, regardless of their party affiliation, have a say in,” said Elizabeth Lundquist, Roscoe Township Trustee.

After months of discussion, the Winnebago County Board will put the power of changing the government structure in the hands of voters.

“I don’t think it’s a liberal or a conservative issue, I think it’s a governance issue. I think it’s the ability for the community to vote for a chairman that they believe in and trust, and who warrants the public trust and I think it’s important to have a chain of command,” said Jean Crosby (R-16th District).

All Illinois counties run under one of three different forms of government: township, executive or commission.

Right now, Winnebago County falls under the township form, where members of the board make decisions and the chairperson only weighs in if there is a tie. Proponents of the referendum say this structure is backwards.

“It’s very difficult for someone to run for chairman of a county when they don’t know what powers they’re going to have. That is why we put it on the ballot. So, we, the citizens of Winnebago County, can choose what kind of government we want,” said Crosby.

“It’s like telling the quarterback, ‘go out there, win the game for us, but we’re not going to send you out any running backs or wide receivers, you’ve just got to do it all on your own.’ It just doesn’t make sense,” said John Butitta (R-8th District).

Those against the move say the referendum is an overreaction to problems within the board, namely the disagreements between members and Chairperson Frank Haney.

“The form of government that we currently have has worked fine for many years, through, you know, three prior chairmen and it works fine for the majority of counties in Illinois. I think that once there’s a new administration in place, a lot of the conflict will go away and there’ll be no need to change,” said Paul Arena (R-7th District).

While the ballot question mentions home rule, where a community has the ability to make decisions on its own, without state approval, any changes to that require a separate vote.

“The state of Illinois says that when a county or county voters take the opportunity to have a choice of their form of government, they have to also be asked about home rule. So, in this particular case, home rule does not factor in at all, we’re non home rule now, we’ll be non-home rule after the election,” said Butitta.

“People need to understand that this is a big deal. It’s not a minor thing to change your structure of government. It will mean that in four years, we’re going to completely change how we do business. That’s going to create a period of uncertainty, leading up to that change, and then there’ll be a period of adjustment after that change for adapting to the new system and it’s not a decision that we can just take back,” said Arena.

Right now, only Champaign and Will counties operate under an executive form of government and if voters approve the referendum, the change would take effect in 2024.

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