ALGONQUIN TOWNSHIP – Whether they know it or not, elected officials have made a strong case for abolishing townships.
Unruly in-house lawsuits, astronomical legal fees and numerous corruption allegations at the highway department have led state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, to put abolishing Algonquin Township at the top of his legislative priorities.
“Algonquin Township is the the poster child for a township government that needs to be eliminated immediately,” McSweeney said. “It’s an example of government not working for the people. It’s outrageous.”
McSweeney now is working on a bill that would give voters an opportunity to eliminate township government with a majority vote – a move that would shift the work done by townships to local municipalities and the county government. His legislation would allow voters to trigger a referendum with a petition signed by 5 percent of voters within township boundaries.
“Algonquin Township is out of control,” he said. “People are sick of it.”
McSweeney has taken a particular interest in the township’s growing legal costs – more than $200,000 through December – and failure of elected officials to communicate or govern.
“The only winners are the lawyers,” McSweeney said. “The taxpayers are the losers.”
He also takes issue with Highway Commissioner Andrew Gasser’s publication of documents on his website. Gasser has said he is posting documents regarding township spending to his website to improve transparency and highlight questionable practices by his predecessor.
McSweeney said allegations of improper spending and official misconduct during the tenure of former Highway Commissioner Bob Miller should be investigated by authorities rather than political rivals and the attorneys they’ve hired using public money.
Miller, who served as highway commissioner for 24 years, now is the subject of a grand jury investigation into official misconduct related to road district spending over the past decade. He has not been charged with a crime.
“Nobody knows what is true,” McSweeney said. “That’s for law enforcement to decide.”
McSweeney said road commissioners have little financial oversight, which can lead to problems such as those that have cropped up in the township.
Gasser is a friend of McSweeney’s who helped the Barrington Hills Republican on the campaign trail in past elections. Gasser previously supported township consolidation when he served on the McHenry County Board. Gasser had little to say about McSweeney’s efforts to eliminate townships.
“Bob Miller has done more damage to township government than Andrew Gasser or Bob Anderson ever could,” Gasser said.
Proponents call township government the most local and responsive form of government residents have. They have said the dysfunction inside Algonquin Township is not representative of townships as a whole.
“There are townships out there that have done very good things,” said Bryan Smith, executive director of Township Officials of Illinois, an advocacy and educational organization that represents nearly all of the state’s 1,431 townships. “It’s very unfortunate, everything that’s going on at Algonquin Township. They’re in a political fight.”
The attack on townships has intensified in recent years. Voters and homeowners tired of high property taxes and the state’s worsening economic climate have been looking to cut anything from anywhere they can.
McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, the first popularly elected chairman in the board’s history, supports McSweeney’s push to abolish townships.
“I think it’s very appropriate,” Franks said. “Let’s give the citizens the option to decide whether or not they want to eliminate a form of government. I don’t know why anyone would be against that. Anytime you allow the citizens to choose how they’re governed is a good thing.”
McSweeney’s road to pass legislation allowing voters to abolish townships with a majority vote could be a difficult one. Lawmakers wrote statutes protecting townships to make it difficult for anyone to abolish the form of government.
The fight against townships has a long, rich history in McHenry County, where two decades ago, voters got the opportunity to choose how they are governed.
In 1994, Wonder Lake barber Bob Anderson spearheaded a referendum to eliminate the county’s townships the only way that state law allowed – by switching from a county board to a three-member panel of county commissioners.
By a 3-1 margin, voters defeated Anderson’s referendum to abolish townships in the November 1994 election.
Although state law allows townships to be consolidated, that’s much easier said than done in political reality.
McHenry County proved that two years ago.
A group of officials, supported by high-ranking GOP officials, launched a 2015 initiative to ask the McHenry County Board to hold referendums to reduce the county’s 17 townships to eight. A slapdash plan assembled by a task force that barely reached any kind of consensus was killed by the County Board on a 13-9 vote.
State law proved to be the biggest deal killer – if two townships vote to consolidate, property taxes would increase for the township with the lower of the two levies, meaning taxpayers with the larger levy would get relief at the expense of the other.
In recent years, legislators started passing laws to make consolidation easier.
Lawmakers allowed voters in Evanston Township, which shares its exact boundaries with the city, to hold a referendum to eliminate it, which they did in 2014. It was only the third time in state history, and the first time in 82 years, that voters eliminated a township.
State legislators who represent McHenry County like the idea of consolidation but are reluctant to jump on McSweeney’s bandwagon.
State Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, has been watching the turmoil unfold in Algonquin Township. Although he’s reserving his opinion of the situation until authorities finish their investigation, Reick said his thoughts on abolishing townships come down to dollars and cents.
“I don’t think what is going on at Algonquin Township is indicative of township government as a whole,” Reick said. “Until it can be proven that abolishing townships will save taxpayers money, I would advise going slowly. I’m not against consolidating if it will save money.”
State Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, agrees.
“I, too, am horrified at what’s going on at Algonquin Township and the bickering among public officials,” Althoff said. “I would only ask that a study be done about the overall [effect of abolishing townships]. We need more data.”
McSweeney doesn’t see another way to end the turmoil in Algonquin Township.
“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “I don’t think it is fixable.”
There’s one solution, he said: “Eliminate it.”