David Ross hasn't even left the building, and already, the scheming is under way to return Rock Island County to the good ol' days of bloat and dysfunction.
The Rock Island County administrator is in negotiations with Stuart, Florida, for its vacant city administrator post. Late last month, Stuart commissioners approved Ross' nomination by unanimous vote, local media reported. All that's left is for the two sides is to hammer out a compensation package.
Beaches, surf, fruity cocktails with little umbrellas and a robust tax base in a city of just 16,000 — things could work out very well for Ross, who has done a yeoman's job herding cats in Rock Island for the past two years.
But Ross' day at the beach might send residents and taxpayers in Rock Island County back to the political tundra if some supervisors have their way. Apparently, several members on Rock Island County Board aren't too hip on a professional budget hawk watching the till they're so accustomed to raiding.
Before Ross, the county's notoriously partisan, wasteful county board ran things on its own. Decades of political gamesmanship, budgets bloated with pork and general dysfunction destabilized Rock Island County, even by Illinois standards.
The county board was more interested in petty squabbles and unabashed cronyism to function with any legitimacy.
It was that precise history that, last year, resulted in the county board voting to reduce its size from 25 members to 15 in 2022. It also propelled the creation of a county administrator position and a national search to fill it. Years of abortive politicking ultimately gave way to Ross' hiring.
And, apparently, a growing number of county board members pine for the old days of government by cronyism and are seizing on Ross' pending departure in an attempt to bring them back.
The backdoor wrangling is hot and heavy among those plugged in to Rock Island County politics, particularly those within its dominant Democratic Party, even though Ross has yet to finalize a deal in Stuart. One high-ranking official recently told us that Ross, a budget czar, should be replaced with an economic development guru. Others have indicated that several members of the county board are uninterested in conducting a search for Ross' replacement altogether.
This bloc, an apparently influential one, longs for the days when it was the board that drafted, approved and oversaw the budget, without so much as general professional guidance.
Neither approach would be wise, should Ross ultimately leave. Those calling for an administrator focused on economic development would sacrifice necessary constant attention to county operations in an effort to look outward. But it's the latter movement that legitimately risks a back-slide into a political system that favored patronage and pork over accountability and transparency.
In Ross' tenure, the county pushed, albeit unsuccessfully, for funding for its jail. It has finally come to grips with just how bad its finances are. At the very least, it wrangled with unsustainable pension costs. The highly political courthouse issue is, finally, moving toward resolution. Given more time, it's probable that Ross would have continued to inject reason into a government that, for years, was downright unreasonable.
Ross' successes can't be measured solely by volume or price tag. In just two years, he began reshaping a dysfunctional government into something that just might work over the long haul. A commitment to the facts has been Ross' biggest strength. His is, by nature, a job steeped in local politics. But he, personally, is no political operative. He's a professional budget hawk and manager, one willing to speak truth to elected officials — his bosses — who have historically been unwilling to hear it.
Should Ross leave for whiter beaches, it's imperative that the county board again conduct a bipartisan national search to replace him. County board members should forsake naming a successor with any ties to a local party or institution. They should, again, seek an outsider who, by professional ethics and freedom from local conflict, can objectively assess the realities of the beleaguered county.
And, above all, county board members should expunge any festering desire to again just do it themselves.