Evanston residents seek to remove advisory referendum on township dissolution from ballot

Oliver Ortega

In an attempt to remove the advisory referendum on township dissolution from the March 20 primary ballot, Evanston residents voted to send a letter of objection to the Evanston Township and Cook County electoral boards Wednesday.

The vote took place during a meeting held at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave. City Clerk Rodney Greene scheduled it after 21 people signed a petition questioning the referendum’s legality.

The referendum would allow Evanston residents to vote on whether the city should pursue the issue of township abolishment. More than 40 people attended the public hearing.

The issue of township dissolution has been controversial since it was first discussed in June. Since then, proponents of the township’s dissolution have argued abolishing the township could save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The township supervises far fewer services than the city but shares its borders. Its main responsibility is administering the city’s general assistance program, which provides financial assistance to about 93 residents. The township also aids Evanston residents with tax-related services such as filing property assessment appeals and runs a program that helps them secure employment.

Amid ongoing discussion on the advisory referendum since it was first agreed upon in December, state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston) introduced a bill earlier this month that would allow Evanston to conduct a binding referendum on discontinuing the township. The Illinois General Assembly will review Schoenberg’s bill as Evanston residents vote on the advisory referendum.

The bill would avoid potentially costly legal action where the city to purse the abolishment of the township now. While The Illinois Constitution states that voters can dissolve a township through a referendum, Illinois state law delineates a procedure in which a majority of voters within a county can only vote to get rid of all the townships within the county, leaving the correct procedure unclear.

At the meeting, Greene said he had been wrongly advised by Cook County officials on how to proceed with a letter of objection that protested placing the advisory referendum on the ballot. Greene said Cook County Clerk David Orr said he had no jurisdiction in the area of township law, and Greene did not pursue further action.

Residents at the meeting then voted to have Greene send that same letter of objection to the Cook County and Evanston Township electoral boards, which is the correct procedure.

The author of the motion to send the letter, Evanston resident Kevin O’Connor, said he hoped this action would lead to a public meeting where Evanston residents could vote to remove the referendum from the ballot.

Ald. Don Wilson (4th), who serves dually as a city and township board trustee, said while he initially voted against the advisory referendum, the matter must now continue to advance.

“The issue has to go through the referendum because it passed the democratic process,” Wilson said. “But on the other hand, it causes a lot of people here distress. Ultimately it’s just an advisory referendum, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that it doesn’t actually dissolve the township.”

Residents expressed concern over what they said were other procedural improprieties as well. Evanston resident Mary Baker, who sent an agenda to the city clerk on behalf of the petition’s proponents, said Greene omitted discussion for two related resolutions on the agenda.

Town meeting moderator Padma Rao said the petitioners had the right to set the agenda.

The meeting time was unexpectedly bumped from 7 p.m. to 6 p.m., causing some residents to complain.

O’Connor criticized the meeting’s lack of advertisement, saying the agendas were posted only inside the civic center. He said there was no agenda on the notices placed in the local newspapers or on the city’s website.

“A lot of this was questionable,” O’Connor said. “I feel the Open Meetings Act has been violated here.”

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