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Kane County's elected officials come and go, but workers mostly stay put

Tom Rickert, deputy director of transportation for the Kane County Division of Transportation, gives a presentation during a committee meeting at the Kane County Government Center.
Tom Rickert, deputy director of transportation for the Kane County Division of Transportation, gives a presentation during a committee meeting at the Kane County Government Center.

Tom Hartwell believes he knows what those who voted for him expect in coming years.

As the newly inaugurated clerk of Kane County’s circuit courts, Hartwell can rattle off a list of those desired attributes.

They sound remarkably similar to the stated campaign goals of almost any candidate seeking any elected office in the county or country. They include integrity, competence, commitment to public service and change.

“Sometimes change is good for an organization,” Hartwell said. “It can get the people who work within, maybe some who have been there for a long time, doing the same job the same way for years, to take a step back and take a different perspective.

“To say, ‘Maybe we should not just do things the way we did them before just because that is how we’ve always done them.’ ”

But for Hartwell, the list of things to change within his office does not include replacing the more than 100 workers who worked for his predecessor, filing and ferrying court documents and processing court records at the request of judges, lawyers and the public using the county’s legal system.

“Will there be some reorganizations in the office? We’re looking at some possibilities,” Hartwell said. “But the staff, I think, is excellent, and the judges and the attorneys I’ve spoken with seem very pleased.

“And I think it’s extremely important to keep the people who all know what they’re doing, and been doing it a very long time.”

In local government, the reticence of elected officials – even those, like Hartwell, who voters recently selected – to make large-scale changes within an office, department or agency appears to be the rule, rather than an exception.

While elected officials come and go and administrations rise and fade, those who work each day in the trenches of local government, performing tasks such as processing building permit and land zoning requests, plowing snow, filling potholes, transporting court documents, representing the state and the accused in court, patrolling the streets and guarding jail inmates, mostly stay put.

In Kane County, for instance, three administrations have held sway over the County Board since 2001; voters selected Mike McCoy, Karen McConnaughay and, now, Chris Lauzen to serve as County Board chairman.

In that time, turnover on the County Board also has been steep, as dozens have been elected and replaced as representatives of more than two dozen County Board districts.

But change among the ranks of the county’s appointed leaders, who serve in the county’s various offices and departments, has come slowly.

A review of county payroll records from December 2001 and December 2004 revealed that, of the 1,268 employees on the county payroll under McCoy, more than 80 percent still were employed by the county when McConnaughay took office in December 2004.

And in 2008, three-quarters of those who had been on the county payroll at the end of 2004 still were on the county’s payroll, equating to annual changes in the county’s employment ranks about 3 to 5 percent.

Turnover at the county increased from 2008 to 2011 about 6 to 7 percent a year in response to staff reductions undertaken by McConnaughay after the onset of the Great Recession, which dropped county employment levels by 6.8 percent.

About 80 percent of Kane County workers still were in their jobs at the end of that span. And those in administrative leadership positions can stay in a local government’s employ longer.

For instance, prominent Kane County employees, including the directors of the county’s transportation and development departments, and others, such as the chief deputy clerk in Hartwell’s office, have worked for the county for 15 years or more, predating nearly every elected official now governing the county.

Brian Costin, director of government reform for the Chicago-based Illinois Policy Institute, said that is not surprising.

He noted that at all levels of government in Illinois, the rate at which government employees intentionally leave their public sector jobs lags far behind that in the private sector.

A 2011 report from the Society for Human Resources Management noted the average annual turnover rate for state and local government employees stood at 9 percent, well below the 15 percent average annual turnover rate for all industries.

Costin noted that local government employees may enjoy better wages, more job security and better benefit and retirement packages than many of their private sector counterparts.

“Certainly, that factors into it [lower turnover rate],” Costin said.

But while the reasons may vary, the results typically do not, because a series of changing elected administrations hand off a largely intact and constant workforce from one election to the next.

Carl Schoedel, who serves as director of transportation at the Kane County Division of Transportation, has worked for the county for 16 years, becoming county engineer in 2003 under McCoy and getting his current title in 2005, under McConnaughay.

Schoedel acknowledged “there has not been a lot of turnover through the years.” And much of what has occurred has been as a result of retirements.

Overall, county staffing levels have been reduced since reaching a peak of 1,386 in 2007, dropping to 1,262 in 2012, as a result of McConnaughay’s staff cuts. In the Kane County Division of Transportation, staffing levels dropped from 73 in 2007 to 62 in 2011, before rising to 68 last year.

Employment levels at other county offices, such as those associated with the courts or public safety, remained constant. That meant those jobs accounted for about 65 percent of all county employees in 2012, compared to 60 percent in 2007.

Schoedel said maintaining continuity is important to the county. At KDOT, he said it keeps “institutional knowledge” high and allows county staff to keep long-term projects, such as road extensions or bridge construction, moving forward.

“We deal with a lot of complex topics,” Schoedel said. “Things that aren’t easily learned overnight.

“So we use our long-term employees as resources, to help train and mentor our newer employees.”

Kane County elected officials shared the need for stability.

Kane County Board member John Hoscheit, R-St. Charles, is the longest-serving member of the County Board, first elected in 1996. He said the stability of county staff has been a boon.

“Historically, we’ve had a lot of long-term employees here,” Hoscheit said. “And that’s a good thing for Kane County.”

Hoscheit and Schoedel acknowledged that there may be a fine line between stability and staleness. But Schoedel said he and others at the county keep themselves updated on new processes, techniques and trends in their fields to avoid falling into the trap of “doing things as they’ve always been done.”

“That’s always a danger,” Schoedel said. “But that’s not really the culture around here.”

Hoscheit noted the expertise and institutional knowledge that would be lost should longtime employees quit or be replaced would leave newly elected officials, less educated on the operations of local government, in a precarious position.

And he said government employees’ jobs should not be tied to the whims of political change.

“If there was a reason for a change, say, poor job performance, or an inability to do the job, certainly, that would’ve taken place in any administration,” Hoscheit said. “But I don’t think newly elected people should result in changes in the ranks of staff, just for the sake of change.”

Lauzen agreed. While he pledged to “do things differently” than his predecessors, he said he believed the current county staff was up to the challenge.

“I am going to change things,” Lauzen said. “But stability is important, and this is a highly competent staff.

“The challenge is on us, as a board: We have to stay focused on what matters to the taxpayers.”

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