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CCFB News» June 2020

Illinois Counties: Anglo-Saxon Roots of the County

In the early nineteenth century, Illinois was populated by two streams of migration. Those settlers who came from the middle states wanted small-scale government at the local level. Since they did not have the strong ties to a parish, as did New Englanders, they tended to create New York-style counties. Migrants from Virginia settled in the southern part of Illinois, which was originally part of colonial Virginia. The model they adopted was similar to government in the large southern counties, with strong executives and no administrative units at more local levels.

Settlers in Illinois resolved this conflict of political culture by allowing the creation of both forms of county government (Duncombe 1977, 22). From the New England experience came the township county, where the board members were popularly elected from districts based on towns. In this form of government, each township elected a supervisor for a four-year term. The supervisors then constituted the county board, much as their counterparts did in colonial New York three hundred years ago. The township form of county government was the most prevalent form in Illinois, having operated in 84 counties until 1972 (55 ILCS 5/2-3001 et seq.).

In the seventeen commission counties there are three or five elected commissioners. One result of changes in statute law effective in 1994 is that commissioners now serve rotating six-year terms with one elected every two years (55 ILCS 5/2-4006) from the county at large. Each December the commissioners elect one of their number to serve as chairman for the ensuing year (55 ILCS 5/2-4003). As noted earlier, the seventeen commission counties can trace their lineage to the several southern colonies of pre-Revolution America.

Cook County has long had a special form of government that does not derive from either of the traditions noted previously. In recent years, the seventeen Cook County commissioners have been elected in the following manner: ten are elected by the electors of the City of Chicago and seven are elected by electors from towns outside the city (55 ILCS 5/2-6001). The president of the Cook County Board is elected as one of the commissioners. At the same election, electors throughout the county indicate their choice of a commissioner to be president of the Cook County Board (55 ILCS 5/2-6002). This unique arrangement results in Cook County having home rule powers under the provisions of article VII, section 6(a) of the Illinois Constitution.

County government, as we know it in Illinois today, is the product of a long period of evolution. This regional unit of local government maintains a historical continuity with its early counterparts in feudal England and France. Although the selection of county officials has been taken out of the hands of the king and the high nobility and placed into the hands of the people, the legacy of this form of government is evident in centuries-old titles of office such as sheriff and assessor. We have good reason to believe that because citizens want to have their demands for government services met by locally elected and locally responsible officials, the county will endure and prosper as a unit for the foreseeable future.

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