Metro-East News

Is democracy alive in St. Clair and Madison counties? Meeting styles may tell the story.

Listen to the difference between Madison and St. Clair County Board meetings

Board meetings in St. Clair County and Madison County are very different. St. Clair County's meetings are short and streamlined, while Madison County's are often lengthy with lots of discussion and debate.
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Board meetings in St. Clair County and Madison County are very different. St. Clair County's meetings are short and streamlined, while Madison County's are often lengthy with lots of discussion and debate.

During a St. Clair County Board meeting earlier this year, Chairman Mark Kern commented on the absence of one of the board’s most outspoken members, Frank “F.X.” Heiligenstein.

“Awfully quiet without Frank here,” Kern said.

The comment was met with chuckles because Heiligenstein, who was absent that February meeting because of health issues, is one of the most outspoken members on the board.

“There just never seemed to be any discussion of anything unless it got controversial,” Heiligenstein said in an interview. “There are one or two others who chime in, prepared to make comments or whatever the case may be.”

That’s the opposite of Madison County Board meetings, which have ballooned in length and debate under Republican Chairman Kurt Prenzler.

St. Clair County Board meetings under Kern’s chairmanship lasted an average of 23 minutes each in 2016 and 2017, compared to an average of one hour and 11 minutes in Madison County under Prenzler, according to a Belleville News-Democrat analysis of board meeting minutes.

It’s a County Board chairman’s job to preside over meetings. Much like other levels of government, their governing style influences how they conduct those meetings. They call the meeting to order, read out agenda items, direct discussion and generally use the gavel at their discretion to punctuate the meeting.

Critics say the St. Clair County meeting style discourages open discussion with the real business done behind closed-doors. They question whether elected County Board members who spend so little time doing the taxpayers’ business are earning their $19,419 annual salary plus optional retirement and health benefits.

Albert Meints “Bert” Hampton, a Republican candidate for District 14, said he believes much of St. Clair County business happens in a “behind closed-doors, old-style, smoked-filled back room, good ole boy’s method.”

“Any fool who attends a County Board meeting can see the closed-door system at work. A small number of County Board members spend significant time conducting county affairs. They just do it behind closed doors. About a third of the current board has no idea what is going on. They do not pick up and read their monthly meeting information packets. They simply vote as directed by the wishes of each committee chair as the agenda rolls along,” Hampton said in his candidate questionnaire.

“The County Board is currently ran in a ‘do as you’re told and shut up and vote’ environment,” said Ed Cockrell, Republican candidate for District 7. “A majority of the County Board doesn’t care about issues because they don’t have to care. Their leadership tells them what to do.”

Meanwhile, Prenzler’s critics say although Madison County’s meetings are ripe with debate, the procedure is out-of-control and dysfunctional compared to meetings under Prenzler’s Democratic predecessor, Alan Dunstan.

Supporters, however, argue St. Clair County meetings are efficient — board members have already worked out the details in committee meetings and know how they’re going to vote. They also put in plenty of time working with constituents.

Madison County, supporters there say, is Democracy at its best — open, raw discussion where every member gets his or her word in edgewise.

Kern says it’s not the length of the meeting that matters, but what board members accomplish. “Civil discourse is really a hallmark of this County Board,” Kern said.

Prenzler says he values the debate that often contributes to the lengthy meetings.

“I believe in the First Amendment. I could say, ‘OK, you’ve already spoken and we need to move on,’ but I wanted there to be more transparency,” Prenzler said.

To gauge sentiment in both counties, the Belleville News-Democrat sought written opinions from sitting board members up for re-election on Nov. 6 as well as from their challengers. The results include responses from 26 people in St. Clair County and 21 in Madison County.

Here’s a look at how sitting board members and their opponents responded to the BND’s inquiries, as well as a glance at each party’s chances in Tuesday’s election.

Candidate questionnaires for all County Board members in contested elections and their challengers in St. Clair and Madison counties can be found at the BND’s election homepage.

The homepage can be found at https://bit.ly/2PWdaNl.

St. Clair County

Heiligenstein, the Democratic board member from Freeburg, has been on the board for 42 years and says the meetings have lacked discussion for as long as he can remember. Democrats have long held a majority, as they do today with 20 Democrats and nine Republicans.

“It’s hard to explain what happens. Maybe 12 board members never picked up their (information) packets before the meeting. Maybe they never really went through the agendas and supporting materials submitted to them,” Heiligenstein said. “I’ve been to board meetings in Randolph, Monroe, Clinton, Washington (counties). They may go a couple hours on their discussion of things on the agenda.”

The streamlined meetings in St. Clair County aren’t new. The Belleville News-Democrat published a story in October 2000 with a sub-headline reading, “Meetings that last only minutes with little discussion raise questions about how the St. Clair County Board does business.”

Critics at the time argued Democratic leadership under St. Clair County Board Chairman John Baricevic instructed board members in their party how to vote, the same arguments critics continue to make 18 years later.

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Democrats on the County Board argue they do their job diligently and rightly earn their compensation.

“We welcome the public to attend these meetings and to engage in discussions regarding any concerns they may have,” said Robert Allen Jr., a Democrat representing District 1. “The time spent in committee meetings and the County Board meeting are only a fraction of the time I spend each month serving the community.”

Other board members said they come to board meetings prepared and knowledgeable about agenda items to ensure efficiency. Board member Susan Gruberman, a Democrat from Belleville representing District 12, said shorter meetings are better in that way.

“All pertinent information, including ordinances, resolutions and department reports, are read and reviewed by members well before the meetings,” Gruberman wrote in her candidate profile. “Any questions members may have can be asked and answered before meetings. It’s well known that short meetings waste less time and allow more time to get things done.”

But one Republican candidate for County Board is skeptical of the short meetings. C. Catherine Demers says committee meetings are also too short to ensure transparent discussion open to the public, as required by law. Frequently, four committee meetings are held in a half-hour before the County Board meeting, some lasting less than five minutes. The Animal Services Committee, with a strong contingent of public participation, is usually the longest.

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“Thirty minutes is not enough time to conduct county business,” Demers wrote in her candidate profile. “The County Board meetings are only long enough to rubber-stamp the agenda. It seems that the work is done in subcommittee meetings, but they are only long enough to rubber-stamp their agendas as well. These meetings only lead to the logical question of where is the business of the county being discussed? And, why is it not discussed where the public can be a part of it as required by the Open Meetings Act?”

The Illinois Open Meetings Act is a state law that requires public meetings to be open to the public.

Not only do St. Clair County Board members receive a higher stipend than their Madison County counterparts, who earn $14,497 annually, they also are eligible for pension and health benefits. Madison County decided to end board member participation in the state retirement system, saving the county an estimated $32,000 annually.

A new Illinois law requires all elected county officials who participate in the pension system to prove they work at least 600 hours in a year by submitting timesheets every pay period. Several St. Clair Board members dropped out in 2016 after the law went into effect. Only 10 remained as of March 2017.

Kenneth Sharkey, a Democrat representing District 27, is one of the board members who decided to forgo benefits.

“In my effort to reduce costs to taxpayers, I do not accept or participate in the county retirement plan,” Sharkey wrote in his candidate profile. “This decision has saved tens of thousands of dollars in government expense to the taxpayers.”

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As of this year, St. Clair County Board members Michael Crockett, Fred Boch, Joe Lewis, Robert Trentman, Carol Clark and Robert Allen Jr. were still participating in retirement benefits, according to data from the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.

Even if board members aren’t taking advantage of benefits, Cockrell, the Republican running for District 7, says the pay to board members is too high.

“The salary is too high for a part-time job,” Cockrell said in his candidate profile. “If any elected official is in a position for the money, then they’re in it for the wrong reason.”

Kevin Dawson, a Republican board member representing District 20, says he earns his stipend by working with constituents, helping with property tax assessments, obtaining special use permits, assisting with grant paperwork and attending meetings.

“I believe that considering the income I forgo to accomplish these various tasks, the stipend I receive is earned,” Dawson said.

Republicans have an extremely slim chance at taking a majority of 15 members in the St. Clair County Board on Nov. 6. There are eight incumbent Democrats in contested elections, three incumbent Republicans in contested elections and three seats up for grabs.

There are four guaranteed Republican seats either because some are not up for re-election or candidates are running unopposed. GOP candidates would have to win eight contested seats in addition to their three incumbent seats to gain a majority.

Madison County

Madison County voters flipped the board from a long-standing Democrat majority to Republican-controlled on Nov. 8, 2016. Prior to the General Election, Democrats held an 18-10 majority.

There are currently 15 Republicans, 12 Democrats, one independent and one vacant seat on the Madison County Board for a total of 29 seats. The vacant seat was left after the unexpected death of Helen Hawkins, a Democrat from Granite City.

Prior to the elections that brought President Donald Trump to leadership, Madison County hadn’t seen a Republican-majority board for decades.

Under the most recent Democratic administration, meetings lasted an average of 36 minutes over the course of late 2015 until the end of the chairman Dunstan’s tenure in 2016, according to a BND analysis of meeting durations.

Since Prenzler, the Republican chairman, took over in December 2016, board meetings have lasted almost twice as long at an average of one hour and 11 minutes.

Prenzler says “everything was pretty well determined” by the time issues made it to the County Board under the Democrat majority. Prenzler served as county treasurer under Dunstan.

“There were very rarely any questions,” Prenzler said. “One of the reasons I ran (for chairman) was there was a machine.”

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Though conversation and questions are now more common, County Board meetings since Prenzler’s election sometimes devolve into lengthy discussions about how the meeting should be conducted and debates about rules of order. Prenzler says he has learned how to better govern in the past two years, though he admits he has made gaffes.

In May, Prenzler and County Administrator Doug Hulme sent out a news release opposing money for a jail renovation, an effort months-long in the planning. The release went out on the same day as the County Board meeting, drawing sharp criticism from both Democrats and Republicans who accused Prenzler of waiting until the last minute to sabotage the vote. The measure eventually passed.

Some board members openly criticizie him during the public meeting. Despite the open criticism, Prenzler says he encourages a board member’s right to express his or her opinion.

“I’m willing to take as much time as people want, but more people are speaking,” Prenzler said. “There’s no question about it. I think some board members, a very few, have used their opportunity to speak to become personally insulting both to me sometimes to other County Board members and so I would like for there to be a little more decorum. But on the other hand, I really did not run to shut down debate. I wanted there to be more fresh air.”

Prenzler’s critics say there is still room for improvement.

Dustin Hudson, a Democrat from Godfrey running against District 6 Republican incumbent Raymond Wesley, says he’s in favor of robust discussion, but would like to see order restored in board meetings.

“What concerns me is that a large portion of that increased time is the board arguing about procedure, more specifically Robert’s Rules of Order, and not substantive issues that affect the county,” Hudson said in his candidate questionnaire. Robert’s Rules of Order is a commonly used manual for meeting procedures in the United States.

Tom McRae, a Republican from Bethalto, said he “doesn’t mind” the length of the meetings as long as they’re productive.

“It is a challenge to keep things on track and to make it as productive yet concise as possible,” McRae said in an interview with the BND. “I think that to be honest there’s probably something to be said for it to be in the middle someplace because oftentimes my feeling previously was there really wasn’t enough discussion... Perhaps in the past when you had an existing super-majority people tended to just show up and vote without much discussion.”

There are 10 guaranteed Democratic seats either because some are not up for reelection or are running unopposed. If Democrats won back all three contested incumbent seats plus the two seats up for grabs, they could take back a majority.

Republicans have to win back all seven incumbent contested races plus one of the seats up for grabs to maintain their 15-member majority. There are seven guaranteed Republican seats either because of uncontested races or because a member is not up for reelection.

Reporter Kelsey Landis: 618-239-2110, @kelseylandis
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