With the economy and state budget in financial turmoil, this is not the time for a novice to shepherd county government through tough times, Cook County Commissioner Earlean Collins told voters at a candidate forum Saturday in Oak Park.

Her three opponents in the February 2010 Democratic primary offered a differing view, saying change was essential in a bloated county government in which Collins has served too long.

The Democratic Party of Oak Park sponsored the event, hosted at the main branch of the Oak Park Public Library. The forum also attracted the four Democratic contenders for county board president. More than 100 people attended the forum, where candidates answered written questions from the audience.

“The magnitude and complexity of county government today faced with the nature and circumstance of our economy [requires] my knowledge and experience,” said Collins.

But her opponents said it is time for new leadership. Forest Park businessman Chris Harris called Collins a career politician who is in her twilight years. “I think we need someone who is not a career politician,” he said. “I don’t plan on being there long, but I plan on shaking things up, if I get in there.”

Derrick Smith, a deputy director for the Illinois Secretary of State, also said the district needs “fresh blood.” “We need someone who is not afraid to step in and walk; not in front of the people, but walk with the people to accomplish what we need.”

Ade Onayemi, a former Oak Park school board president and a licensed architect, said Cook County government has become too bureaucratic. If elected, Onayemi promised transparency in government, accountability, improved health care and beautification of the forest preserve.

But the county’s penny-on-the dollar sales tax increase dominated much of the forum. Collins said she voted to roll back the tax hike that made Chicago’s sales tax the highest in the nation. Collins, though, said the county has few options when it comes to raising revenue.

Harris, however, argued that Collins took a weak stance on the roll-back by voting “present.” He said he would fight to repeal the tax. “There is your change she is talking about. That is why Cook County is broken,” Harris said, who called the county budget bloated and promised to do a line-by-line review of it to trim fat.

Onayemi also called for a budget audit. But he noted that some of the county’s tax burden lies with the state’s inability to properly fund schools. “If we weren’t paying so much, the property taxes would actually make some sense.”

Smith contends that the tax increase is a necessary evil, one needed to provide important resources and services. But, he said he would “draw back” the sales tax if it is being misused.

When asked about reforming county government, Collins said she has worked to revamp contract and purchasing agreements, patronage and ethics reform. She called such reform a daunting task since the fabric of county government is geared toward greed, power and intimidation. “That is the structure of that government and that is the culture of that government, but it is changing,” she said.

“Change,” Onayemi said, is a word used loosely by those on the board who purport to advocate for it. “Change is a very strange word when it is being brought forth by those who have not done anything to make any changes,” he said.