Champaign County Board Shake Up Opens New Opportunities
By Jim Meadows
The Champaign County Board is going through some changes.
The Board, which oversees the county budget, county buildings and roads, and a nursing home, and also appoints panels overseeing everything from rural cemeteries to property tax appeals, is in flux, due to redistricting.
All board seats are up for election this fall. But there are other changes --- a reduction in the number of members, a change in the number of county board districts --- and who’s running.
Someone who is not running is Republican Steve Moser. At age 69, Moser is retiring. He is turning the operation of his family farm in St. Joseph Township over to his son, and he is giving up his county board seat after 20 years in office --- including a stint as chairman.
Moser is one of several Champaign County Board incumbents who have chosen not to run. He is not thrilled with how remaining members intend to move the board forward.
"We’ve got some new people on there that have come on there with ideas that they’re going to change the whole makeup of how we do business, and it doesn’t work that way," Moser said. "The constraints of the state are pretty much going to dictate what a county board does and what it doesn’t do."
In all, 11 county board members are stepping down or have already resigned, in anticipation of a board roster reduction from 27 to 22. They include top leaders like Democratic County Board Chair Pius Weibel and Republican Caucus Leader Alan Nudo.
The reduction is meant to make the county board more efficient and responsive. Champaign Democrat Pattsi Petrie said there are pros and cons.
"One argument is, a smaller board will enhance the possibility of conversation," Petrie said. "The argument on the other side says that a smaller board means we have less expertise, breadth of expertise on the board."
Petrie is running for re-election in the new county board District Six, which like most of the newly drawn districts, has no contested races.
In fact, there are only eleven Republicans running for the new 22-member board, making a GOP majority mathematically impossible. But one Republican remains optimistic her party’s entire slate could win.
"I just am excited about the opportunity of the potential of eleven and eleven," Champaign City Councilwoman Sher Hampel said.
Hampel is challenging incumbent Democrats Giraldo Rosales and Justice Committee chair Michael Richards in the new District 8, which straddles Champaign and Urbana.
Hampel believes an evenly divided county board could force the two parties to work together.
"We’ll have to work it out," Hampel said. "We’ll have to have conversation, because you don’t want it to be a draw every time. Because that would be the worst gridlock."
If Michael Richards survives the election challenge from Hampel, he will be among the remaining Democrats in line for top county board leadership posts --- since five other Democrats are stepping down, including the chairman and vice-chairman.
Without saying if he’ll seek a higher leadership post, Richards said he does have ideas about how leadership should approach the job.
"We need to more efficiently utilize study sessions; we need to be thinking about our agendas and what we want to do with the county more in advance and not being as reactive," Richards said.
It is an uphill battle for the two Democrats running in the new District One. Eugenia Lamb Watson and Eric Thorsland are running in solid Republican territory ---- northwest Champaign County, completely outside Champaign-Urbana.
Thorsland, who chairs the county Zoning Board of Appeals, says he’s a conservative Democrat who frequently sides with Republicans.
“There’s lots of room in the middle for people to come to agreement and to feel like both sides have gained something from that, and move county’s business forward,” Thorsland said.
Thorsland and Watson are challenging recent appointee Gary Maxwell and the new Republican caucus leader, John Jay.
Jay said he is disappointed by the shortage of Republican candidates, and he said the new district map favors Democrats.
A new county redistricting commission was meant to make the process bi-partisan. But said says each party gerrymanders the map when it’s in power.
"My frustration with both of them is, we ought to be drawing a map for the betterment of Champaign County, period," Thorsland said. "But that’s not what happens."
The new Champaign County Board that voters elect next month will be seated in December.
Steve Moser’s departing advice to the new board ---- don’t micro-manage things that should be left to the county administrator; don’t put off decisions; and for the urban majority on the board, don’t ignore the concerns of residents in rural areas like his.