Emboldened by Evanston voters’ decision to eliminate their township, longtime township opponent Bob Anderson sees an opening.
Anderson, of Wonder Lake, is asking all 24 members of the McHenry County Board to put an advisory referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot to voters in six townships asking whether their particular township should be abolished. The six townships he chose – McHenry, Nunda, Algonquin, Grafton, Dorr and Burton – are predominantly covered by municipalities.
The ballot box is a tactic that Anderson has tried before – voters shot down his 1998 referendum to abolish McHenry Township by a 3-to-1 margin, as well as a 1994 referendum that sought to eliminate townships by changing to a county commissioner form of government. But Anderson said much has since changed, not counting increasingly frustrated taxpayers: State lawmakers have created a mechanism by which one township could eliminate itself and pass on its services without hassle, and voters took advantage of it.
And the elimination of Evanston Township, too, started with an advisory referendum. While it was a special case – the entire township is covered by the City of Evanston – Anderson sees townships that are mostly covered by municipal boundaries as the next logical progression.
“I’m confident. I’m confident that [the County Board] will get it to the voters,” Anderson said.
There are 1,432 townships spread out among 85 of the state’s 102 counties. Supporters of township government call it the most localized and direct form of democracy available to taxpayers, providing needed services. Opponents like Anderson call it an anachronism, rife with nepotism and patronage, that has created services in order to justify its continued existence.
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. The mechanism pushed by Evanston state Sen. Daniel Biss applied only to Evanston Township.
Evanston Township was one of 20 “coterminous townships” in Illinois, meaning their boundaries fall completely within a municipality’s boundaries. In Evanston’s case, the city’s mayor and aldermen serve as the township board, but the township has an elected supervisor and assessor.
Evanston’s voters in 2011 approved an advisory referendum in favor of dissolving the township. Biss, a Democrat, first filed a bill that would have allowed voters in any township to force a binding referendum abolishing it with the signatures of at least 10 percent of its registered voters. But the bill ran into trouble with Township Officials of Illinois, a powerful Springfield lobbying group.
When it was clear Biss did not have the votes to pass it, he amended the bill to apply to only five of the state’s coterminous townships, but he still did not have the votes. He amended it again to apply only to Evanston Township and it passed, over the maintained objections of the lobbying group.
Evanston Township voters approved dissolution in the March primary, and the township’s existence ended May 1.
Anderson said a strong showing in advisory referendums could influence state lawmakers to create a mechanism for abolishing townships consisting mostly of municipal territory. But county officials, while they may approve the advisory referendums, have historically opposed the idea on the grounds of having to absorb such functions as general assistance and more road miles to maintain.
At least one township supervisor was unimpressed by Anderson’s latest effort. Algonquin Township Supervisor Dianne Klemm called the advisory referendums another attempt at “his purpose in life, as far as he’s concerned, and that’s ridding the county of townships.”
“He can go ahead, and the voters will answer him. We have a lot of work here. If he ever came here, he’d see that. I can’t afford to worry about Bob Anderson. He’s too far out for me,” Klemm said.
Unlike his previous endeavors, Anderson has had success with advisory referendums. He successfully got the County Board to put an advisory referendum on the November 2012 ballot asking whether people should be allowed to hold more than one elected office simultaneously – state law in many circumstances allows elected officials to hold multiple offices at the same time. About 90 percent of voters agreed that elected officials should be limited to only one.
The township form of government is used in 20 states, from New England through the Midwest. No states in the South or West have townships.
Local governments have until Aug. 18 to put advisory referendums on the November ballot.