News Local/State

Champaign County Board Chair Questions County Executive Proposal

Champaign County Board Chair Pattsi Petrie

Champaign County Board Chair Pattsi Petrie (D-Champaign) Jim Meadows / Illinois Public Media

In Champaign County, the Chamber of Commerce and the Farm Bureau think that a county executive would make government more effective. But the chair of the Champaign County Board isn’t so sure it would work.

The idea, which could show up on the November ballot, would be like a governor of the county: an elected office, with its own staff. and veto power over the county board.

In an interview for Illinois Public Media, Champaign County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Laura Weis said the county needs a county executive, because the Champaign County Board by itself has failed to act on several major issues, such as the future of the county nursing home and the county jail.

“You know, we’re a state in crisis,” said Weis. “And we have a county board that’s been stuck in neutral,” Weis said. . And we really need to try something different so that we can move forward on some issues that we’ve been talking about for a long time in this community.”

But where Weis sees an opportunity to break through a county board logjam, Champaign County Board Chair Pattsi Petrie sees the risk of creating a new one.

Petrie, a Champaign Democrat who was appointed to the chair with Republican backing, says she hasn’t formed an opinion on the proposal. But, she says any county executive in Champaign County would likely be a Republican, because most countywide elected officials in the county are Republicans. If the Champaign County Board keeps its Democratic majority, Petrie thinks a county executive would simply create a new stalemate --- because the county executive could do what she cannot --- veto county board actions. She says that could likely happen when the time comes to draw up new boundaries for county board members’ district.

“The arguments that I’ve been reading is that they want things to move forward,” said Petrie. “But if you get locked into a very partisan situation, and you get locked into an individual who can veto things that are passed by the county board that could generate very high hurdles to getting things done.  

Backers of the county executive idea cite Will County as their model. It’s the only Illinois county with a county executive.

Cook County has a similar arrangement with its elected County Board President. But Cook County has something that Will County --- and the Champaign County executive proposal --- do not have: home rule powers.

Among other things, home rule governments can raise taxes without asking the voters through a tax referendum. That’s not a popular concept with groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Farm Bureau. But Petrie says the challenges Champaign County faces with its nursing home, its county jail and the maintenance of county buildings in general, are financial challenges that will need new revenue.

“So it is a bit antithetical to know that the Farm Bureau  and the Chamber are only putting forth a referendum for an elected county executive because they want things to happen, but they have not given any provision for the county to raise money,” said Petrie.

Petrie thinks the county executive office itself would cost Champaign County money, once the newly elected county executive picks out his or her staff. She says that under state law, the staffing process is more than just moving positions over from the county administrator’s office.

“Well, a priori, in that statute, an elected county executive can choose his or her own staff, his or her own attorney, without going to the county board for approval,” said Petrie. “So that adds a considerable amount of cost to the county in staffing.“

Like other critics of the Chamber and Farm Bureau proposal, Pattsi Petrie thinks there are partisan motives at work, the same as when Democrats proposed the idea, back when Republicans dominated the Champaign County Board.  Champaign County voters rejected the county executive idea in referenda held in 1986, 1988, 1990 and 1998.

Petrie wishes partisan concerns would be reduced in county government elections, because, she says, the more local the government, the higher the stakes.

“Because when you’re working on local issues, there is a higher percentage chance of effecting change, as compared to effecting change when you get up to a state level or even a national level,” said Petrie. “So the focus should be on what is in the best interest, whether it’s a municipality, a village or a county, rather than, do I play my trump card with my veto?”

Petrie says she’s interested in an idea she’s heard from officials in other Illinois counties, to change state law so that county officials can be elected on a non-partisan basis, the way they are in cities like Champaign and Peoria.