Observers Say Civility Is In Short Supply In Winnebago County Government

Aug 14, 2019

Longtime political observers are concerned about a lack of transparency and infighting among Winnebago County leaders.

This week, Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney and a group of voters sued county board members in federal court. They argue the board systematically stripped Haney of executive powers since he took office in 2016. It's the latest in a string of complaints lodged within county leadership.

"We've completely distracted, distorted and perverted the way we do business. You know, nobody really feels good," said Haney.

He's not alone in his concerns.

Mike Schablaske is the former executive director of Transform Rockford, a group dedicated to harnessing economic opportunities for the region. He now sits on the editorial board of the Rockford Register Star.

"I think in the specific case of Winnebago County, there's a concern broadly in the community about the results," Schablaske said.

Specifically, he's deeply troubled by the current climate heading into budget negotiations.

"Is there a focus on the successful operations of the county things like safety, justice and health, economic development and roads? Or is it more in the area of personal agendas?"

Transparency

There are also concerns about the ability to get information from county leaders. State's Attorney Marilyn Hite Ross is accused of muzzling discussion on how money is spent, specifically from the public safety tax. She came under fire for a policy requiring reporters fill out a request form to secure interviews with her office. It requires reporters stick to pre-cleared questions.

Josh Morgan is the Station Manager at WREX-TV. He's also the president of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association.

"We believe that she should answer the questions," Morgan said. "And we believe that we have the right to ask those questions without being pre-interviewed ourselves."

Full disclosure: WNIJ did fill out the form to secure an interview with the State's Attorney related to another topic. At the end of the interview, the reporter asked how she feels about concerns about her office and transparency.

"Well, I think you can only respond to what is being reported," Hite-Ross said. "And I don't think that the hard work and the collaboration has been reported."

Morgan says his station routinely covers what would be considered "positive" community news. But he says it's also a reporter's role to get specific answers to how county money is spent.

"We're not here to serve the State's Attorney," Morgan said. "We're here to serve our viewers and the public and give them information that helps them to inform the electorate."

Civic Engagement

Mark Baldwin is Executive Editor of the Rockford Register Star.

He says nobody wants to see government "convulsed" and "consumed" with infighting.

"One of the lessons of this whole last two and a half years is that not enough people pay attention to what goes on in county government -- or city government, for that matter," Baldwin said. "People need to get out, they need to vote, they need to take this stuff seriously. You know, the federal government doesn't have anything to do with picking up the dead animal in the middle of your street or making sure that the crumbling roadway is repaired. Local government does."

Schablaske says time is running out to hit Reset.

"The key to that, in my opinion, is a good flow of information," Schablaske said. "What's going on? What are the issues? Can we get access to that? I don't want to just hear about the personal issues. I want to hear about the data. I want to know about the budget. Where are the tax dollars going? What's the pace of justice? How are conditions in the jail? And so on. When that information flows, we can make better decisions to support and to vote."

Repairing Trust

He says that will require a climate of vulnerability and respect among leaders.

"A transformation that occurs in every conversation, every meeting, every memo and email and so on," Schablaske said.

The latest lawsuit may not be exactly what he has in mind. But Chairman Haney forecasts it might get worse before it gets better.

"Is this pleasant? No, it's absolutely brutal and nasty," Haney said. "But at the same time, I think there are some really good things that are possible coming out of this -- maybe a better structure overall, maybe the community is a little more revitalized and engaged and say, 'Not again, we're going to be more aggressive in recruiting candidates. We're going to be more aggressive in following policy development, we're going to be more insistent that the will of voters is respected.'"

Ripple Effect

Don Craven is a lawyer based in Springfield with a concentration in media and government law. He says what happens in Winnebago County matters elsewhere.

"These things tend to travel," Craven said. "People, other public officials and other counties, see what's going on in Winnebago and they think that it becomes normal, it becomes acceptable."

Craven says what's happening in Winnebago County is not exactly what Lincoln had in mind when he was talking about "government of the people, by the people, for the people."