Township foe sees hope in elimination bill
Supporters of reducing the state’s 7,000 units of government see a new law allowing DuPage County to ax some of theirs as a good step.
A longtime opponent of township government sees the same in a new law allowing Evanston Township voters to formally abolish it.
Wonder Lake barber Bob Anderson, who has fought for years to get townships abolished and spearheaded two referendums to that effect, said Gov. Pat Quinn’s signing of Senate Bill 1585 is a significant step. The bill spells out the steps to turn over services and property if the township is eliminated – that uncertainty, Anderson said, has scared off people who otherwise would support township abolition.
“For 20 years I’ve been trying to get rid of township government, and for 20 years I’ve been working every state legislator to work on something like this – a transition plan that would spell out exactly who takes over, and when and what happens if a township is taken over or eliminated,” Anderson said.
There are 1,433 townships spread out among 85 of the state’s 102 counties. While township proponents call them the most responsive and direct link between government and the people, opponents call townships an unnecessary and wasteful throwback to the past, whose duties could be easily absorbed by county and municipal governments.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, clarified state law as to whether Evanston Township voters could dissolve the township on their own or whether all voters in Cook County – which has 30 townships – would have to weigh in.
Evanston Township residents in an advisory referendum last year voted in favor of abolishing it by more than a 2-to-1 margin, and Biss’ legislation allows them to put a binding referendum on the ballot. The township and the city of Evanston have identical boundaries – the city’s aldermen and mayor serve as the township board, but the township has an elected supervisor and assessor.
The original bill as proposed would have allowed voters in any township to force a referendum abolishing it upon submission of a petition with the signatures of at least 10 percent of the township’s registered voters. But Biss narrowed the language to pertain only to Evanston Township to get the needed votes to pass it.
Even that did not eliminate opposition from Township Officials of Illinois, which lobbied against the bill.
“While this bill only includes one township, Evanston Township, we must not let this bill pass,” Executive Director Bryan Smith wrote in an April legislative alert. Smith could not be reached for comment Friday.
While Article 7, Section 5 of the Illinois Constitution allows townships to be abolished either individually or countywide by popular vote, the only mechanism codified in state law provides for eliminating all townships within a county.
And the only way to do that is with a referendum to abolish the county board form of government and put power in the hands of three elected county commissioners. This is what Anderson’s first referendum in 1994 tried to do, but voters resoundingly rejected it by a 3-to-1 vote.
After the election, McHenry County’s representatives in the General Assembly successfully changed the law to make it harder for a county with a larger population such as McHenry County to approve such a referendum.
Anderson succeeded in getting a referendum on the ballot in 1998 to abolish McHenry Township, but that too was rejected by the township’s voters by a 3-to-1 vote.
“My critics continue to throw this in my face – why do you continue when everyone says we want to keep townships by a 3-to-1 vote? My answer is plain and clear – no one could make an intelligent choice at the time because there was no transition plan in case it passed,” Anderson said.
The 17 Illinois counties without townships are in the southern half of the state. Twenty states from New England through the Midwest have townships. No states in the South or West have them.
The bill Quinn signed with regard to DuPage County allows its county board to vote to eliminate any local government entirely within its boundaries for which it appoints a majority of its trustees. Thirteen of the county’s 400 units of government are eligible for deletion, including one that exists solely to maintain 77 streetlights in a Naperville subdivision.
A state commission to explore how to pare the number of Illinois governments is expected to be released by the end of January. Illinois has far more governments than any other state – the first runner-up, Pennsylvania, has about 4,900.
On the Net
You can read Senate Bill 1585 at www.ilga.gov.