A Plea for Single-Member Districts for Local Governments

Active citizen Steve Wilson offers the following lament:

Voter Oversight and Span of Control

There is a concept in business management called “span of control”. It refers to how many people a paid, full­time manager can reasonably be expected to oversee.

Historically, the proper “span of control” was considered to be four employees. In our modern era, with flatter organizational structures and better information technology, a manager is now often expected to oversee as many as ten employees.

Yet, as a voter, I’m supposed to monitor fifty­-six local elected officials.


Let me be clear: I’m not talking about the federal government. I’m not even talking about the STATE government.

I’m talking ONLY about local government.

Steve Willson

Steve Willson

I’m supposed to keep track of

  • 7 elementary school board members
  • 7 high school board members
  • 7 community college trustees
  • 7 village trustees
  • 7 park district board members
  • 4 township trustees
  • a township clerk
  • a township supervisor
  • a township highway commissioner
  • a township assessor
  • 4 county board members
  • the states attorney
  • the recorder of deeds
  • the regional superintendent of education
  • the county clerk
  • the county circuit clerk
  • the county treasurer
  • the county executive
  • the county coroner and
  • the sheriff!

How am I, as a good citizen and voter, supposed to keep track of 56 people who are IN office, and at election time, often an equal number of candidates?

It’s not possible.

In fact, the system is designed to create voter disenchantment and voter apathy. It is designed specifically so that elected officials KNOW very few voters are keeping an eye on them.

The problem is NOT too many governments.

That is a red herring.

Let’s look at the recent attempt to consolidate townships.

Right now, I have eight elected officials in my township.

Question: If several townships were consolidated, how many elected township officials would I have to monitor?

Answer: Same as now – eight!

Would consolidating townships have saved money?

I don’t now.

But I DO know it wouldn’t have reduced the number of people I, as a voter, am supposed to oversee.

So how can we reduce the number of elected officials that I’m supposed to watch?

It takes two simple steps.

Number one, get rid of at­-large positions. This is the biggest problem.

If all the board members were elected from single-member district, that by itself would eliminate 36 people from my “span of control”.


From 56 to 20 in one fell swoop!

Number two, get rid of ministerial positions. If it ever made sense to have an elected coroner or an elected circuit court clerk, those days are long over.

In the twenty­-first century, those people should be hired employees.

As elected officials, there is simply no way for me to know if the recorder is doing a good job or a bad job unless I read about some egregious failure in the newspaper, like someone trying to hire their spouse.

Sadly, the County Board can’t monitor these people, either!

Why not?

Because the recorder and coroner and the clerk and all these other ministerial positions DO NOT REPORT TO THE COUNTY BOARD!

They are elected officials in their own right!

Think about it.

Do we elect the Curriculum Supervisor for the school district?

Do we elect principals or even superintendents?


We expect our elected boards to do that.

So why, in 2015, are we still electing clerks and coroners?

If we made all of these ministerial positions paid employees reporting to their respective boards, we would eliminate thirteen more elected officials I, as a voter, am supposed to monitor.

And we would eliminate the worst offenders for patronage and nepotism.

Take these two steps and, I, as a voter, would have seven elected officials left to monitor, seven people whom I’m supposed to keep an eye on.

I can do that.


A Plea for Single-Member Districts for Local Governments — 22 Comments

  1. Unfortunately to do (legally) what you suggest would require a change in the State Constitution.

    That will not be permitted unless we change the people in Springfield.

    Do not know if he is in your district but the election of Paul Serwatka in your area would be a step in that direction.

    We can all have dreams about reducing the number of offices, third parties etc. but nothing will change unless we get rid of the ‘establishment’ union and business controlled element in Springfield. This will not happen unless we get more people like you involved to put “boots to the ground” and try to get more people who really understand the issues to come out and vote.

    We had the signatures the last election to place the redistricting issue on the ballot and it was thrown out.

    Who knows if we will be successful this time?

    The conservative element in this County has made great strides in the past three years and we need to keep the movement growing.

    Cal is trying with his blog postings for committeemen but he cannot do it alone.

    We need strong recruitment of conservative committeemen to continue the growth of what has been accomplished to date.

    The new group managing the current GOP in the County is an improvement but we need MORE NEW people in charge of the County GOP.

    We cannot afford to lose what ground we gained by allowing the former people in charge to return to power.

    The half baked idea of consolidating townships was a total fiasco and caused a lot of people to lose faith in the current group managing the County GOP.

    BTW One of the least useful offices in this State is the office of Clerk in all units of government that have them elected.

    Some home rule municipalities already have made that position an unelected one but to eliminate the Township Clerk office you have to change the Township laws.

    We should eliminate the County Clerks but that requires a change to state election law and County law.

    County Clerks are now practically useless since they can no longer verify citizenship for voter registration.

    Everything in the Clerk’s office can be run by a computer and a good manager.

    About the only County wide office I still support is the Sheriff but as they too are allowing their offices to become more and more controlled by D.C. through the acceptance of federal tax dollar grants, their office too will become useless for We The People.

  2. Coincidently, in trying to find the correct department to call yesterday for some County filings. I had to read up on the McHenry difference between the Recorder and Clerk on who to call.

    But I’m happy to report that this is the first time I’ve called a County Dept. and someone other than some idiot tried to answer my queries.

    Walters is running a good ship there.

    Phone answered correctly and directed to right person, a supervisor named Natalie I believe, who was both knowledgeable and professional.

    Good job there Phyllis!

  3. “So why, in 2015, are we still electing clerks and coroners?” Steve asks.

    The reason we still have the coroners system is purely financial. To switch over to a “Medical Examiners” system would be not only extremely costly, but, would be over kill. (no pun intended)

    Most people do not understand what the difference is other than they might realize the coroner is elected and the Medical Examiner is appointed.

    But it is much more than that and I would be shocked if people really knew even this much about each systems differences.

    If I might explain in a very simplistic fashion.

    If you think of your vacation plans.

    You either stay at a free standing hotel where you ‘go out’ for all your meals and entertainment, such as a hotel you pull off the interstate to stay with.

    This is basically how your coroners office works as it relates to death investigations.

    The “Medical Examiners” system is akin to your “All Inclusive” vacation.

    You have ALL of your needs cared for by one single facility.

    All your doctors, all your lab work (unless you need to bring in the FBI for federal cases or highly difficult ones where you might need the FBI lab) everything you need to complete a death investigation is under the same roof and all the professionals are right there as well.

    I had advocated for a centralized ‘Morgue” medical examiners office that would service Lake, McHenry and Kane counties, as an example.

    However and as correctly stated by “Cautious Voter,” a change would have to be made via the states constitution as the coroners system is statutory. (Each sucking money down the drain even when there are no death calls in the pipe line.)

    The McHenry County Coroner that we presently have, does a very good job and keeps her office highly professional.

    When operated in such a fashion, the office can be a bargain as compared to the continuous ongoing daily expenses of a M.E. system.

    The way Lantz operated the office was an abomination to the citizens of McHenry County.

    But then again, I tried to tell you all that, but at that time, everybody loved Marlene Lantz and lambasted me for having the audacity to try telling you otherwise.

    So Steve, it has been challenged but the people didn’t want it.

    Whether the office is elected or appointed, it is still always going to be political in one fashion or another.

    One, the coroner, is beholding to the voters and powers that be, the other, the Medical Examiner, is beholding to the Governor.

    Both I’d submit, need to have a watchdog………for those looking to help, start a blog, visit these offices, get active and V-O-T-E after educating yourselves.

    Good points all around Steve.

    Thank You.

  4. Single member districts, I’d suggest that a county board member not represent more than 20k population.

    I think more than that per board member is to many for them to properly represent.

  5. To finish that thought, right now this county would need 16 districts/board members.

    If the county grows in population the number of districts would need to be increases also.

    At present that still would reduce the board by 8, and that would mean more work for the 16 remaining making them more like full time rather than part time as we see them now.

    I’d bet the 16 remaining would be looking for a pay increase.
    While concentrating more power in fewer hands could be of concern,

    I’d think the change in power control wouldn’t be that significant.

    Let’s not forget gerrymandering.

    All districts should be formed not by the elected, but by a computer programmed by people outside this area, maybe out of this country in fact.

    Present legal and voting borders and precincts, number of voters, box shaped as much as possible, natural boundaries.

    No consideration for past voting, age, sex, or any other political nonsense.

  6. If those fifty six did their jobs as intended, our taxes would not be near what they are.

    The problem is that the majority of the fifty six people do nothing but put a ‘rubber stamp’ on ANYTHING put forward by the un-elected public sector employees.

    Why do the public sector salaries keep going up?


    The public sector employees set the budgets and lobby the elected officials to approve them!

    Just take a look at how successful the employees of MCD lobby!

    MCCC was the same until people like Jenner were elected.

  7. So the solution to corruption and patronage is to downsize voters’ choices and instead concentrate power into the hands of a mere handful of elected officials?

    Why not just one?

    Certainly worked well in 1930’s Germany…

  8. Just for the sake of conversation and idea generation, what about the fact that the “County” government does NOT control the land area or the people within Municipal boundaries.

    So how come those areas with a high population, but not within unincorporated McHenry County (that is the people within a municipality) have so much to say about what happens in the unincorporated part of the County?

  9. Cautious Voter — Thank you for your comments.

    Sometimes I agree with you; sometimes I don’t.

    But I always appreciate your comments, and I always read them because being challenged forces me to either sharpen my arguments or change my mind.

    Both are good outcomes.

    My point is that there is an inherent problem in the structure of government in Illinois:

    too many at-large positions and too many ministerial positions.

    It would not require a constitutional change to eliminate at-large positions.

    So would you agree with me on this point?

    As for the ministerial positions, that it would require a constitutional change does not mitigate my point that change is needed.

    Set that aside for the moment.

    Let me grant that a constitutional amendment would be needed.

    Do you agree that we SHOULD reduce the number of ministerial positions that are elected?

    David Bachman — As with “Cautious Voter”, I find that your comments are always thoughtful. Thank you.

    It seems to me, though, that your comments about the Coroner support my position.

    You argue that the office is well run now and that it was not under Lantz.

    My point exactly:

    the voters cannot oversee all these offices.

    The voters cannot be experts on coroners, road commissioners and clerks.

    And if these people were employees, then the County board and the Township boards COULD exercise oversight, which is why we elect them.

    As for cost, I like your idea of combining services across several counties.

    But I do not understand why hiring a coroner or medical examiner should necessarily cost more than we pay the elected coroner now. Please explain further.

    Finally, I would be curious if you agree with my point about at-large positions.

    Robert Williams — While I appreciate the comments of the other writers, your comments are simply nonsensical and your comment about Nazi Germany is grotesque, the first refuge of people who have no logical argument, an insinuated argument ad hominem.

    Let’s follow your “reasoning”:

    Having one person in charge of everything is not enough, therefore 56 is obviously the perfect number?

    Heck, why not 100.

    Why not 200?

    Why not elect the director of curriculum at every school district, and the school psychologist, too?

    No, the right number of elected officials is a number to be determined by deep analysis that balances multiple goals and examines facts.

    I have made an argument that we have so many elected officials that the average voter cannot exercise oversight.

    And I have argued that for systemic reasons, voters CANNOT exercise oversight of ministerial officials because they are, legally and literally, independent units of government, not subject to oversight by the County or the Township and in most cases do not provide the data voters would need to determine if the offices were run properly. (Not that with the best data I could decide if every clerk, road commissioner and coroner was doing a great job.)

    You did not respond to any of that.

    You added nothing to the discussion.

    No reasoning.

    No facts.

    Just obnoxious vitriol.

  10. Steve: I read what I posted and I do not see where I did not support your premise.

    My point is that voters in general are very ignorant.

    Many of them dream that a third party is the solution.

    Some believe we need to eliminate units of government.

    Your point is that we need to eliminate the number of people running for office.

    I agree with the underlying premise:

    We have TOO MUCH government.

    My point is that most offices are written into the State Constitution and/ or individual State laws.

    The only County wide offices I believe you can eliminate via referendum:

    the one just approved by the ignorant voters – Chairman at large –

    the County Recorder

    the County Coroner

    the county Auditor

    The Sheriff, the Clerk and the Treasurer are enshrined in our state constitution.

    We had an opportunity to eliminate the office of County School Superintendent by joining with Lake County or another County but that opportunity was ignored by the County Board majority.

    In summary I have no argument with the basis of your post, I was simply pointing out that the problem is not a simple one and will not change as long as we keep electing ‘establishment’ candidates such as Althoff, Franks, McConnaghey, Tryon, Wheeler to state government. Currently there is a race for Tryon’s seat.

    We have three establishment candidates and one who is not.

    We will see how serious the voters are about not electing establishment politicians.

    Here is a section of the State Constitution:

    “(c) Each county shall elect a sheriff, county clerk and
    treasurer and may elect or appoint a coroner, recorder,
    assessor, auditor and such other officers as provided by law
    or by county ordinance. Except as changed pursuant to this
    Section, elected county officers shall be elected for terms
    of four years at general elections as provided by law. Any
    office may be created or eliminated and the terms of office
    and manner of selection changed by county-wide referendum.
    Offices other than sheriff, county clerk and treasurer may be
    eliminated and the terms of office and manner of selection
    changed by law. Offices other than sheriff, county clerk,
    treasurer, coroner, recorder, assessor and auditor may be
    eliminated and the terms of office and manner of selection
    changed by county ordinance.”

  11. Here is the downside of single member districts.

    We had an ad hoc committee on this last year look at various scenarios to restructure the County Board.

    You need to understand first of all that on the County Board, most of the important decisions are made in committees.

    Each committee has seven members, one from each county board district and one district will wind up having two.

    As it now stands, we are therefore able to have a representative of each district on each committee.

    If you go to single member districts you won’t have that.

    I do agree that a 24 member Board is unwieldy.

    On several occasions we have found ourselves debating issues which had not gone through the committee process, and the result was chaotic.

    You can’t conduct a meaningful discussion with 24 people.

    Also, if you have single member districts, you will not be able to change your representative more than once every four years whereas, if you have two or more per district you have a chance at replacing someone every two years.

    If you are thinking that reducing the size of the county board will save money, think again.

    Board members will simply want increases in pay to compensate, as they will have to be on more committees.

    There are several ways to look at restructuring.

    First of all, the reason we have seven member committees is that the Open Meetings Act used to prevent two people from even talking to one another outside of a committee unless you have that many members.

    This has since been amended to allow for one on one conversations on five member committees.

    That means we could go to five member committees.

    If we changed to five member districts, we could still have each district represented.

    This, however, increases the geographic size of District 6, which is mostly West of Route 47.

    Nevertheless, this would allow for a 20 member Board, plus a Chair who may or may not also be a Board member (to allow for the Chair to vote).

    You don’t want to have 3 member districts as that means that one election cycle you would have one member up for re-election and the other cycle you would have two.

    Therefore, you either need to have four member districts, as at present, or go to two members.

    That still allows for one re-election every two years and keeps it consistent year to year.

    With two member districts you would have a ten member Board plus a Chair who may or may not also be a Member to allow for the Chair to vote.

    Now you can have all of your committees, have a member on each representing each district, and have a member coming up for re-election every two years.

    What would be the numbers on cost reduction with this proposal?

    Right now the Board costs $509K per year given 21 Members at $21K each plus a vice Chair at $26K. The Chair makes $80K so your current total is $589K.

    Benefits are going to be variable with each Member depending on whether or not they take them, what family members are on the health plan, and what type of health plan is selected.

    Mileage is also paid for meetings.

    The argument can be made that part time employees should not be getting benefits and/or that mileage should not be paid.

    However, if you go to a Board that is half the size of the current Board, everyone will be full time so they would definitely want benefits.

    Mileage, if it is paid, would go up per member but stay the same overall.

    (The argument for paying for mileage is that, unlike in a private employment situation where you can pick where you live vs where you work, the board Members have to live in their districts so some have further to travel than others to get to Woodstock).

    Assuming that the Members want to double their pay to go to full time, that would be $42K per year times ten or $420, possibly with extra for the Vice Chair (It may not be legal to pay the Vice Chair more by state statute so I am leaving that out).

    With the Chair still getting $80K you have a total of $500K per year or a savings of only $89K. This comes out to around 89 CENTS per property tax payer.

    There would be savings on benefits in the sense that you would have 14 fewer benefit packages being paid.

    Parenthetically, I believe that $80K for the Chair is too much and had made a motion when we set that to reduce it to $60K. This did not garner majority support from the Board.

    The duties of the Chair would not really change with a smaller Board as the Chair does not typically attend meetings (although that would be a good idea) so no salary adjustment would be needed to go to smaller Board where the Chair is concerned.

    As an ordinance I put through reduces the salary of the Chair who is also a Board Member to the higher of the two salaries (no double dipping), a Chair who is also a Member would receive the same salary regardless.

    Another side effect of going to a smaller, but full time, County Board is that fewer people would be able to afford to give up their day jobs to be on the County Board.

    We already suffer from lack of representation by certain sectors of the population that have to work full time and don’t have the ability to adjust their schedules to accommodate frequent day time meetings.

    A smaller Board would, however, be more accountable and professional and full Board meetings would go more smoothly.

    I don’t think that half way proposals, such as 18 or 16 member boards would work in terms of maintaining the committee representation for all of the citizens on each committee as committee sizes are going to have to be 3, 5 or 7.

    I welcome comments and any alternative proposals.

  12. It is the county board that by ordinance sets its own salary and benefits. They can cut insurance benefits for themselves.

    They can eliminate mileage.

    IMRF now needs certification that the requisite number of hours are worked and has a 10 year vesting mark and thus is more and more uninviting to elect to join.

    Those interested in tax savings should monitor what the county board does on these issues through the Human Resources Committee and the Audit Committee.

    Speak up early and often and maybe the board members who set their own compensation will pay attention.

    Single member districts and pay attention to where those folks are from when setting up committees no matter if they are 5 or 7 members.

  13. Steve, as you understand very clearly, the coroners office is one of the most secretive offices within county government.

    We don’t really look at what is going on within the walls of this office.

    As simply as I can explain to help the folks to see why the Medical Examiners office would cost so much more to operate than a coroners office, I offer the following.

    Basically, a coroner can run her/his day to day operations out of her/his home.

    Many within the state still do operate their coroners offices out of local funeral homes.

    If a coroner does not have a ‘formal’ facility to perform autopsies for instance, the county will pay, on a ‘per case’ basis, to utilize a local hospitals morgue facility.

    A coroner or M.E. MUST also sign ALL cremation permits.

    So there are ongoing paper work duties that are statutory for the coroner to perform.

    Again, this can be done out of a little office at the local funeral home or a closet sized office at a county facility.

    SO as I stated in my first comment, think of the coroners office as a ‘free standing’ hotel, where the guest, and in this case the investigation of the death of a decedent, expenses other than the coroners salary, are not necessarily ongoing.

    For instance, in the coroners system, you won’t need a licensed forensic pathologist sitting around on the clock getting paid to wait for his next case. So the money is not going out the door all day long.

    In the Medical Examiners system, like an “All Inclusive Resort,” because staff and facilities are needed to be operational 24/7 whether of not they are working a ‘case,’ they money just pours out the door irregardless of work/case load.

    I do not mean to offend anybody with my analogy, but this office is so complex to the average Joe, that I need to relate it to something all folks can picture in their minds.

    I will add that the coroners in our area, are WAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY over paid!!!

    That being said, a qualified licensed FORENSIC pathologist, is worth a small fortune and the tax payers pay him/her whether or not he/she is actually performing an autopsy in the Medical Examiners system.

    In closing, that Licensed FORENSIC pathologist the coroner CALLS IN on an AS NEEDED BASIS ONLY and is paid ONLY WHEN THEY ARE CALLED IN to perform an autopsy, is a matter of saving tax payer dollars.

    On the other hand, a Medical Examiner is getting paid day in and day out irregardless whether or not there is an actual case ‘in house.’

    McHenry County has so few murders and or high profile cases, that unless we ‘combine’ adjoining counties into one M.E. lab, morgue and administrative offices, the coroners office is the best way to go, at this point.

    Keep in mind too, the coroner is never off duty, it is a 24/7 position.

    Not many even want the job. It is emotionally and physically highly demanding.

    The other option is to turn the office over to the Sheriff.

    The Sheriff is in charge of “Investigating the circumstances surrounding the death” anyway, the Coroner is in charge of DETERMINING the cause and manner of death, (confusing I know) so basically, such as in some California counties like LA County, the Sheriff is in charge of all death investigations and serves as the coroner as well. ( I think?)

    I did not make myself very clear earlier in my first comment on the following point.

    Although the coroners office is NOT constitutional, the OPERATIONS of the office, such as the fact that if the Sheriff is incapacitated for any reason, the coroner becomes Sheriff, is statutory.

    I firmly believe and my thirty years experience tells me, that in the case of McHenry county, it would be okay to close down the coroners office, but, then you would have to either turn those duties over to the Sheriff, or, turn to the M.E. system.

    For all the rambling reasons above, this would be unwise, at least at this time, UNLESS, we can combine services with other counties as outlined.

    Thank you and sorry for the length…. but it is an office that requires much explanation as it is a mystery to most.

    Happy Thanksgiving everybody!!!

  14. Concerned Voter — I don’t see where I responded to a comment that you posted, but if I misinterpreted anything you said, I apologize.

    One of the things I like best about this blog is the generally high standard of the comments.

    People are usually thoughtful, and I enjoy the collaborative effort towards better solutions.

    Take care and have a happy holiday.

  15. David Bachmann — Thanks for the explanation.

    Many good points.

    I like the idea of professionals in professional positions and I like the idea of sharing services among counties where the need of each county is limited.

  16. Steve: No apology necessary.

    I was responding to your questions:

    “Do you agree that we SHOULD reduce the number of ministerial positions that are elected?”


    “It would not require a constitutional change to eliminate at-large positions. So would you agree with me on this point?”

  17. Heck Steve, I know one coroner in south central Illinois who was also the local shoe salesman!!

    It’s cases such as this that certainly give credence to your valid points.

    Enjoy your Thanksgiving everybody…..!!

  18. Kathy: I don’t know how you can “pay attention to where these folks are from” in setting up committees if you have single member districts as you are recommending. If a block of taxpayers are not represented on, say, the Finance Committee, because we have 24 districts and only 5 or 7 members can be on the committee, you, by definition, are going to have 17 to 19 districts which do not have a member of that committee who has to answer to them.

    Of course, the single member districts could potentially help the Democrats, so you could expect a lot of GOP gerrymandering to try to keep that to a minimum, not to mention that incumbent members will want to avoid being put together with another incumbent, which creates another whole area of drama and potentially goofy looking districts.

    BTW: What ever happened to the Franks petition to require the Board to go to single member districts after the 2020 census?

    Is that going to be filed on Monday?

  19. Boy did this posting attract the crackpots!

    Lest we forget about voting for judges!

    And the last thing I want to become is Chicago, where some roles are sheltered from voters (prime example is Chicago School Board).

    U of I trustees are similar patronage jobs where executive nominees are appointed at the discretion of a chief executive with zero accountability to taxpayers.

    You complain about the volume on the one hand, then complain about appointments on the other.

    Pick a damned lane, people.

  20. Just a comment from a public library director in a District library.

    I’m not sure that your comparison to ‘span of control’ in the public arena is applicable here because you, as a voter should not be the person responsible for ‘oversight’ as you put it.

    Even in a democratic republic (that’s the U.S.), we voters show our faith and trust in individuals as they represent (hopefully) our best interests.

    We should not have to have daily/hourly oversight to expect that they do the best job possible in representing our best interests.

    I know there is abuse, neglect and corruption in every office.

    While I’m not an elected official – I try to personally make the best use of public funds, spend frugally, spend it locally where applicable and appropriate and save when we can.

    I live in my district and in the community and I want to be a good steward of the public’s money and trust.

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