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County Board vote question requires prompt answer

Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times
Editorial

Until Monday, when Todd Stroger was sworn in as the new Cook County Board president, it was assumed he would not be a voting member of the board. That's because, unlike his father before him, he is not also one of the 17 elected commissioners. But then Stroger's attorney asserted state law gives Stroger the right to vote. Although Stroger says he doesn't intend to exercise that right, the claim has stirred up some debate that should be put to rest as soon as possible.

That could happen at the County Board meeting today. Commissioner John Daley said the board intends to debate rules that will make it clear that the president can't vote unless he or she is also a commissioner. The matter has never been an issue before, because Todd Stroger's father, John, had been president and commissioner since the county adopted its current structure in 1994. The new situation requires some new rules, Daley said.

But it may not be as simple as that. Todd Stroger's attorney, Burt Odelson, said that the president's right to vote is clearly written into state law. While not everyone who has looked at the law agrees that it is as clear as Odelson says it is, there could be a question about whether the county can adopt rules that conflict with state statutes.

Commissioner Gregg Goslin has asked Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine to research the matter and issue an opinion. Goslin wisely wants to resolve the debate quickly, before the new County Board under Stroger starts voting on some of the critical issues before it. Stroger, of course, has an unquestioned and far more powerful ability to veto legislation passed by the board. If he opposes something, after all, then it doesn't matter much whether he can vote against it during a board meeting if he can simply nix it with a veto.

But if he favors something, having a vote would allow him to break ties. Goslin, a Republican, said he is expecting a lot of close votes in the coming months, and wants to know now whether Stroger will be able to participate in them. Devine's office is expected to issue its advice quickly.

If Stroger wanted a vote on the board, then maybe he should have also run for commissioner. Giving him a vote at this stage is akin to expanding the board to 18 members, something no state or county law envisioned. But it is apparent that those laws need to be clarified to address the current situation. While lawmakers are at it, they should also change the unusual four-fifths majority needed to override a veto by the Cook County Board president. That threshold is higher than the three-fifths or two-thirds majorities that are required in most other jurisdictions, and has the effect of giving the president too much power.


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