Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Belleville News-Democrat on Oct. 8, 2000.
Democracy is on display the last Monday night of every month when the St. Clair County Board meets -- or is it?
The Democratic-controlled group of 29 elected county legislators has funding and oversight responsibilities for the Metrolink light-rail extension, MidAmerica Airport and other important regional projects, and controls the spending of millions of taxpayers’ dollars.
But critics say there is a problem with how the County Board does business -- regular meetings rarely last more than 20 minutes, and committee meetings often are adjourned after five or 10 minutes with little or no discussion.
Skeptics question whether a lot of county government business is being done in secret, illegal meetings and private discussions outside of public scrutiny.
“A lot of it is not being done in an open, deliberative process,” said Steve McGlynn, the St. Clair County Republican Party chairman.
Some, such as longtime County Board member Bob Glenn, a Belleville Republican, believe the majority of board members are told how to vote by the Democratic leadership, including St. Clair County Board Chairman John Baricevic.
“The way this is conducted, why it’s a steamroller deal. If you object, you stand out like a sore thumb and no one will vote with you.
“We’re operating under a dictator,” Glenn said.
Baricevic disputes the accusation that he tells others how to vote and said County Board meetings are simply voting sessions to establish policy. The real work, he said, is done in committees.
“County Board members are elected to represent the citizens -- not simply to go to board meetings and debate,” Baricevic said. “That’s what high schoolers do.
“The reason there’s hardly any debate at the County Board level is that we work all these issues out at the committee level.”
But another Republican, Ed Anderson of Belleville, scoffed at that notion. The last three county Finance Committee meetings lasted 10, seven and seven minutes, respectively.
“(Decisions) are made by the chairman most of the time -- there’s not a lot done in committee,” Anderson said.
The County Board’s meeting on Aug. 28 lasted nine minutes. Two of those minutes were spent on the prayer and pledge of allegiance at the beginning of the meeting, and general comments from board members took up another two.
The Sept. 25 meeting lasted eight minutes. At both meetings, the board approved three or four agenda items at a time on a unanimous roll call, meaning individual board members’ votes were not recorded. Time for public comment is rarely built into the meeting agendas, and reporters usually outnumber the general public.
Glenn, the board’s senior member who is leaving when his term expires in December, said if anyone tries to get a discussion going or requests a roll call vote, Baricevic simply orders the member requesting the roll call to be recorded as a no vote.
Craig Hubbard, an O’Fallon Republican from, said the likelihood of discussion occurring at a County Board meeting depends on Baricevic’s interest in the topic.
“If it’s a topic he wants to discuss, we’ll have open discussions,” he said.
Baricevic admitted that County Board meetings in St. Clair County are shorter than meetings in most other local governments but added, “I don’t think the fact that there’s a long meeting or a short meeting means anything.”
Mark Von Nida, the Madison County clerk, said full County Board meetings there usually last an hour or more.
The brief meeting raise concerns whether important decisions are being made out of the public view.
“I would think the deliberation and the de facto decisions are being made behind the veil of secrecy,” said Jim Nowlan, a senior researcher at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “This would appear to be an insult to the public’s right and need to know what is going on in one of its major taxing bodies.”
But Anderson said the meetings are as long as the public would want them to be, because the relevance of county government actions in people’s lives is limited.
“We can’t drag on the meetings just because we want to,” he said. “A lot of people think the meetings should run four hours. This is county government -- there’s not that much happening.”
Citizen participation low
Each of the 29 County Board members must serve on more than one of the 15 county committees. While the time and frequency of the meetings vary, committees generally meet once a month during the day. The Finance Committee, perhaps the most high-profile committee, meets twice a month during the evenings.
“If you want to see how St. Clair County government operates and makes decisions, you need to be at committee meetings,” said Baricevic, underscoring the importance of committees in county government.
But citizen participation usually is low.
Baricevic said the public is encouraged to attend every committee meeting. A meeting schedule is posted on the first floor of the County Building in Belleville, and meeting schedules also are sent to metro-east media outlets.
But set times for citizen comment rarely appear on committee meeting agendas, meaning people simply need to speak up when they feel inspired to do so.
Mike Crockett, a Democratic board member from Cahokia who chairs the Transportation Committee, said residents have not taken much advantage of the opportunity to participate in public meetings. He said citizens have attended only about one of every six transportation meetings.
“They come when they’ve got a problem,” he said. “If they don’t come, it doesn’t disappoint me, because I know we’re doing a good job.”
Glenn said one problem with the county’s heavy emphasis on committees is that board members can get caught off guard by actions of other committees.
For example, Glenn said a constituent approached him asking what, if anything, the committee planned to do with the unused French Village Drive-in property near Fairview Heights, and he didn’t know because he didn’t know what the appropriate committee was doing about it.
“I said, ‘I have no idea,”’ Glenn said. “I had to explain to the person that, yeah, I’m on the County Board, but that doesn’t mean I know what’s going on in the other committees (than the ones I serve on).”
Most Democratic board members said they believe trusting their colleagues on other committees to do right by county taxpayers is an effective way for the county to function. They argue the county’s emphasis on committees allows individual board members and whole committees to develop expertise on topics and therefore become authorities on them.
“Most people respect other people’s committees,” said Richard Krause, a Democratic board member from East St. Louis. “We usually vote the way that committee wants it voted on.”
Normally in County Board meetings, board members vote on reports submitted by each of the various committees that contain statistical data and recommended courses of action on proposed county ordinances or spending bills.
Another Democratic board member, Joe Kassly of Fairview Heights, said he is more likely to question a committee’s recommendation if it was not made unanimously.
“If there’s ever any question, you look at the committee vote,” he said.
In June, the County Board passed inducement resolutions authorizing the sale of more than $100 million in bonds for three separate projects -- a health-care facility, a hotel and retail development, and an aircraft hanger at MidAmerica Airport.
Passage of an inducement resolution does not obligate the county financially, but means it will consider floating bonds to fund a project.
Joe Behnken, one of the nine Republicans on the board, said most inducement resolutions don’t even merit a second thought from County Board members.
“An inducement resolution will always be passed -- most of the board members pay very little attention to those,” said Behnken, of O’Fallon.
Glenn said the easiest way to change how the County Board operates is for voters to elect a board that is more balanced between Democrats and Republicans.
Problems in how the County Board does business are caused by the dominance of one party, he said, in this case the Democrats.
“If we had 20 Republicans on that board, it would be in the same mess it’s in now,” he said.
But Anderson conceded that if Republicans did control the County Board, county government would not operate as effectively, at least in the beginning.
“I don’t think we could govern,” he said, pointing out that because Democrats have dominated local politics for so long, Republicans don’t have experience controlling government.
“We’d have seven-hour meetings arguing about prayer in school and abortion.”
Regardless of which party is in control, Troy Abel, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, said offering public participation opportunities in local government is important.
“You should still have opportunities for deliberation and debate,” he said. “The institutions of local government really are the classrooms of democracy.”