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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008 01:43 am

County board cutback: Is ‘Fewer and

Opponents contend downsizing would cut representation, without much savings

The county-board cutback proposal would reduce the number of Springfield-urban area districts from 20 to 10.

Just as U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) promises reform on Capitol Hill if he's elected, five Democratic challengers running for the Sangamon County Board promote revolution here at home, starting with the structure of county government. They call their proposal, "Operation Fewer and Better," and on Nov. 4, voters will be asked whether the county board should be downsized from 29 to 15 members.

Scott Saunders, who is running against Republican incumbent Rosemarie Long in District 10, got behind the issue to save Sangamon County money and to increase the board's efficiency. He admits it's a controversial stance, especially since 25 of the board's current 29 members are Republican. But that's why he's doing it, he says.

"It's more gutsy to run for office when you put forth an idea like this," Saunders says. "That's the whole point in being in elected office — having ideas to put forward. If you're not going to have ideas to put forward, then you don't have any business being there."

The proposal — also supported by candidates Michael Hoerner, Rob Mehan, Roy Pierceall and Mike Shipman — would equally divide Sangamon County's 189,107-resident population (using the latest census data from 2000) into 15 districts. The average number of residents per district would increase from 6,500 to 12,600. Since urban areas comprise nearly 70 percent of Sangamon County, the board would operate with 10 urban districts, four rural districts and one urban/rural split district.

Saunders and other advocates argue that by eliminating 14 board positions and their attached $7,500 salaries, the county would save $105,000 each year. The cut would also give board members "a bit more muscle with more voters behind them," Saunders says, and encourage transparency in the board.

"They've got 15 standing committees, and that's where everything gets done," Saunders says. "By the time it gets to the floor of the county board, everything's been decided. If there were half as many county board members, they'd have to consolidate some of those meetings and people could keep track of what's going on."

Cutback supporters also cite transformation in county government operations statewide. In addition to Sangamon, only three other counties — LaSalle, Madison and St. Clair — support 29 county board members, the maximum allowed by state law. But other populous counties, like DuPage and Peoria, elect 18-member boards.

Dr. Kent Redfield, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield and a former Illinois General Assembly staffer, joins several sitting county board members, the Springfield branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Sangamon County Farm Bureau in opposing the proposal.

Redfield calls the measure a "shot in the dark." There isn't any research that suggests an optimum size for a county board, he says, and proponents have yet to identify any massive problems with current board operation.

Such a move would actually cause problems with representation, Redfield continues. Even though the number of minority and rural representatives would shrink proportionately along with the rest of the board, these members would face difficulty voicing and addressing constituents' concerns.

"There would be fewer people representing the various interests in the county," Redfield says. "In terms of the minority community in Springfield, that person would be talking to themselves.

"It's the same percentage, but the point is, if you have fewer voices and fewer people, you have less interaction, less people to talk to, less diversity."

It would also reduce the potential pool of candidates, Redfield adds, by making it more time-consuming and expensive to campaign in the expansive districts.

Even if voters choose to support reform by voting yes on the advisory referendum, the issue is far from resolved. If the county board decides to act on the wishes of the voters, proponents say districts would most likely be reconfigured using 2010 census data, as part of the 2012 election.

Saunders admits that the challengers' penchant for change might come with a price, especially since their potential districts are more-or-less contiguous and they might be pitted against each other to reduce seats.

"There's a good chance we'll eliminate ourselves," Saunders says. "But we will have more of a chance of getting something done, and we'll have to convince less Republicans that any idea is a good idea.

"I don't know if it'll get any more of us elected, but it'll certainly give us a stronger voice."

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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