The first tangible sign of a cordial relationship between Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen and Coroner Rob Russell may come etched in the cornerstone of a new facility that seemed to be a political impossibility just last year.
The first terms in office for Lauzen and Russell featured constant verbal jabs between the two. Lauzen painted Russell as an inept manager of taxpayer dollars. Russell cast Lauzen as a tyrant unwilling to work with any officeholder who didn’t follow the chairman’s playbook.
A sore spot is Russell’s ongoing employment of financial adviser and political mentor Ken Shepro, who ran against Lauzen in the Republican primary for the chairman’s seat. He also served as the county board’s attorney during former Chairman Karen McConnaughay’s tenure.
But the unthinkable happened last November. Lauzen and Russell won re-election to a second term. That created two choices: Ring the bell for round two of the political infighting, or find a way to work together. Recent actions indicate a peace treaty is in the offing.
Don Biggs, Lauzen’s hand-picked facilities manager, took the unusual step of asking county board members for permission to work with Russell on a new coroner’s facility.
Russell has highlighted the shortcomings of his current workspace for years. The county board identified the coroner’s building as a problem building back in 2011. But when former Coroner Chuck West came under criminal indictment, board members ranked a new coroner’s office 12th out of a dozen potential projects.
“We’ve tried to make accommodations to make it usable,” Russell told county board members during a recent meeting Biggs also attended. “We’re running out of space, and long term it’s not going to be a usable building. I’d like to work together in a collaborative fashion to figure out a way to move forward.”
Department heads don’t typically need board permission for collaboration that doesn’t involve spending money. But the request may also be a reflection of unfruitful efforts behind the scenes.
Board member Mike Kenyon has lobbied his colleagues to support a plan for Russell to swap spaces with Kane County’s animal control department. The animal control building already has the makings of a medical suite for autopsies. But Kenyon and other board members say that plan, which would involve Russell taking over a building used by a department under Lauzen’s direct control, has not gained any traction.
At the same time, board members seem open to a fresh-start mentality by exploring some form of upgrade for Russell.
“In my mind, it’s always been our No. 1 capital project need,” county board member Drew Frasz said. “So this is a starting point. It’s long overdue.”
Even more telling is the voice of confidence supplied by Bill Lenert, a county board member with long ties to Lauzen.
“I am in support,” Lenert told Russell. “It’s important we take a look at doing something with the understanding that we may not be able to do everything you would like. But I’m fully in support.”
A new coroner’s facility may be the start of a much larger discussion. County officials have long eyed the idea of moving more services to the Kane County Judicial Center campus. County board member Becky Gillam said the county’s aging campus presents many future challenges.
“All this comes down to taking buildings that were not built for their current purpose and trying to retrofit them into a use,” Gillam said.
Moving the coroner’s office may free up some needed parking by allowing for the demolition of the current coroner’s office and adjacent mail and storage building. Biggs said that would be a high priority, but financial limitations will play a role in all pending work.
The county board already has a midyear budget deficit. It faces a larger budget problem in 2018. The county could make use of its power to issue non-referendum bonds to finance the work.