Contentious Evanston forum explores merits of township government

Oliver Ortega

More than 100 people attended a spirited public panel Monday night to discuss plans to dissolve Evanston Township as well as to learn about the functions of township government throughout Illinois.

The forum, held at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, 1330 Ridge Ave., was organized in anticipation of an advisory referendum on the March 20 general election ballot that will gauge whether Evanston residents support dissolving Evanston Township. Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl and a few members of the Illinois General Assembly attended the panel.

Evanston Township is coterminous with the city of Evanston, meaning the two share a border. The township and the city also have the same board of trustees. However, the township oversees far fewer services.

The Better Government Association, a nonprofit government watchdog organization, hosted the event. The discussion, titled “Relevant or Redundant? Illinois Townships” was led by four panelists: Larry Suffredin, 13th District Cook County Board District Commisioner; Emily Miller, BGA policy and government affairs coordinator; Bob Porter, administrative coordinator of township officials of Cook County; and Sam Yingling, Avon Township supervisor. NBC 5 reporter Phil Rogers moderated the panel.

“We want to educate people on issues like these, particularly because of the referendum that’s coming up,” Miller said.

During the forum, the panelists discussed the role of townships in Illinois and whether Evanston could efficiently assume the township’s responsibilities and save as much money as some supporters of dissolving the township have said. They also discussed the upcoming referendum and the legal issues involved in dissolving the township. Once the panel was underway, members of the audience submitted index cards with questions for the panelists that Rogers read.

The discussion was at times heated. Members of the audience sometimes shouted at panelists and occasionally the panelists rebuked one another sharply.

Since last year, some officials have pushed to dissolve the township, arguing the township’s responsibilities can be delegated to the city and save hundreds of thousands of dollars.When Evanston Township trustees convened in October, Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) estimated savings at $750,000.

The township’s main responsibility is administering the city’s general assistance program, which provides benefits to about 93 residents, Porter said. The township also aids Evanston residents filing property assessment appeals among other tax-related services.

Evanston Township assessor Bonnie Wilson said the township provides valuable services that city officials are not trained to administer.

“If they go to the city and someone there tries to help them, they’re not going to understand how to help, because they don’t have the background and experience that our office has,” Wilson said.

Evanston resident Priscilla Giles said she thought the panel discussion was unfairly slanted in favor of abolishing the township.

“There was only one person on the panel that thought the township was worth saving,” Giles said.

The proper procedure to dissolve a township is unclear. While the Illinois Constitution states that voters can dissolve a township through a referendum, Illinois state law outlines a procedure in which a majority of voters within a county can vote only to get rid of all the townships within the county, not individual ones, Miller said.

Evanston Township is a part of Cook County, which is also composed of 29 other townships, in addition to 132 incorporated municipalities, including Chicago.

Because of the uncertainty regarding the procedure for dissolving Evanston Township, State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston) introduced a bill earlier this month that would allow the city of Evanston to conduct a binding referendum on discontinuing the township. That referendum could avoid potentially costly legal disputes which could arise if the city took action now without clear township-dissolving precedent.

The Illinois General Assembly will review the bill at the same time that Evanston residents will vote on the referendum.

The last township-dissolving action in Illinois occurred in Williamson County in 1932.

Ald. Don Wilson (4th) said the issue will probably be dropped if Evanston voters decide not to pursue township dissolution in the upcoming referendum.

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