WOODSTOCK – A driving force in county politics who helped shape the McHenry County Board for almost a decade as its chairman is stepping down to represent the county on the Metra Board.
County Board members voted, 17-4, Tuesday to appoint Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, to be the county’s voice on the board for the suburban commuter rail. Koehler’s resignation from the County Board takes effect Friday, because state law forbids Metra Board appointees from holding an elected office.
Voters first elected Koehler to the County Board in 2000, and his fellow board members in 2004 elected him to the first of four two-year terms as its chairman after former Chairman Mike Tryon was elected to the Illinois House. Koehler replaces another former County Board member, Marc Munaretto, who resigned from the Metra Board barely a year into the appointment, citing work conflicts.
Koehler, after the vote, told his fellow board members that leaving them was the hardest part about taking the job. He was one of 12 applicants for the appointment. Koehler, after the vote, pledged to work hard to advance the county’s commuter rail interests.
“This is going to be a real opportunity, I think, to really work hard for McHenry County at that level, and I didn’t think we’ve really seen that, at least the way it’s gone for the last few months,” Koehler said.
Board members voted without comment – members Michele Aavang, R-Woodstock; Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake; Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake; and Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard, voted “no.” Koehler abstained, as did board member Mike Skala, R-Huntley, whose company does business with Metra.
Koehler’s leadership during his time as chairman, despite occasional stumbles, was seen as firm by supporters and opponents alike.
Among the accomplishments under Koehler’s watch as chairman included the county’s attaining of an Aaa bond rating, developing the 2030 Land Use Plan, changing the leadership of Valley Hi Nursing home to a public operating board, and creating a funded road construction program that turned many longtime county project wishes into reality. He also put a top priority on close working relationships with the county’s federal and state lawmakers, and oversaw the implementation of a mapping and monitoring program to help preserve the county’s groundwater supply.
His four terms, however, prompted louder calls for the chairmanship to be popularly elected by the voters rather than the County Board. It agreed to put a referendum on the ballot to that effect, and voters in 2014 approved it – the 2016 election will be the first in which voters elect the chairman.
Improving the county’s Metra service long has been a top priority for County Board members and the county’s representatives in Springfield. Aside from a handful of Pace bus routes and the MCRide dial-a-ride service, commuter rail is the most tangible benefit the county gets from the sales tax it pays to help subsidize suburban and Chicago mass transit.
Metra faces significant challenges as it grapples with aging infrastructure, a tight budget and trust issues caused by back-to-back, high-profile corruption scandals that tarnished the agency’s credibility.
Longtime Metra CEO Phil Pagano, himself a McHenry County resident, killed himself by stepping in front of a Metra train in 2010 hours before the Metra Board was set to fire him over financial improprieties. His successor, Alex Clifford, lasted two years before leaving with a generous severance package – when pressed by outraged lawmakers, Clifford alleged he was forced out because he would not acquiesce to political patronage requests.
It will be up to the County Board to appoint someone to fill out the remainder of Koehler’s term, which expires next year. The McHenry County Republican Party almost certainly will recommend a candidate, which the County Board can accept or reject. The appointee under state law must be a Republican, like Koehler.
Koehler’s resignation means both seats that are up for election in County Board District 2 will be filled by newcomers. Member Carolyn Schofield is running instead for the 66th House District to replace Tryon, who is not seeking re-election. District 2 covers northwestern Algonquin and far northeastern Grafton townships and includes parts of Crystal Lake, Lakewood and Lake in the Hills.
The Metra Board pays $15,000 a year, but new appointees no longer receive pension or insurance benefits as a result of reform laws that passed after the scandals.
The County Board has not had to fill a vacancy since 2006, when it had to fill two – one member moved out of state and the other died suddenly.