The Evanston Political Machine is Gaming Evanston Township Government
Once upon a time, Evanston was a bellwether Republican city and township. When my paternal grandfather was called upon to serve as a precinct judge of election in 1928, the sitting Republican Secretary of Commerce, Herbert C. Hoover, outpolled the Democratic Governor of New York, Al Smith, by more than three hundred votes in one Evanston polling place. Smith, a Roman Catholic, received a total of two votes for the presidency in the entire precinct. The Democratic and Republican judges of election huddled together and agreed that things looked too lopsided based upon the actual vote count. They were afraid of being called downtown to account for the vote totals, so to forestall a possible official inquiry an additional twenty-eight ballots were hastily manufactured containing votes for Smith to make the tally sheets appear to be more palatable to the canvassing board in the County Building.
Evanston, the home of the prohibitionist Women’s Christian Temperance Union, remained reliably Republican throughout the Sixties until the Township Regular Republican Organization headed by former Cook County Board President William N. Erickson began to atrophy. The Rockefeller Republicans, most notable for their support of liberal candidates such as the North Shore poseur, US Senator Charles H. Percy, a Kenilworth aristocrat by way of Rogers Park, lost their comfortable margins in Evanston when followers of Congressmen Abner Mikva relocated en masse after fleeing Hyde Park when Mikva’s former bailiwick was redistricted and merged into a black congressional district. These Democratic liberals and progressives traded the University of Chicago precincts for the leafy suburban streets opposite Northwestern University.
Mikva eventually accepted a federal judicial appointment from President Carter before he resigned this post to serve as a special counsel to President Clinton. As a presidential advisor and confidant, Mikva specialized in cleaning dirty laundry and linen for the impeached chief executive. In Evanston, Mikva’s successors began to transform the community into a cross between the Haight-Asbury district and Berkeley.
True to form, these former critics of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s autocratic rule in Chicago began to behave like petty dictators, themselves, once they wrested control away from increasingly ineffectual Republicans in Evanston. Conditions became appreciably worse after State Representative Jan Schakowsky was elected to Congress to succeed the elderly Sidney Yates in the 9th District. Together with her convicted felon husband, political strategist and Obama advisor Robert Creamer, Schakowsky’s allies helped complete the transformation of the city and township into “The People’s Republic of Evanston.”
The latest farce coordinated by the parlor pink ruling elites was the bumbling and stumbling attempt to eliminate the last vestiges of township government in Evanston. Many township functions had previously been merged into the Evanston city government decades ago. Reasonable minds can debate about the utility of maintaining or discontinuing township government, but what a clownish debacle the motley crew has made of the issue in Evanston.
First, a few facts are necessary to set the stage. The Illinois State Constitution of 1848 (the second of four constitutions in our state’s 194 year history) provided for the creation of township governments. At the present time, eighty-five of a total of 102 Illinois counties have such governments in operation. Township governments in the United States predate the American Revolution by 140 years. The first recognized township government was organized to serve Providence, Rhode Island in 1636. In agrarian and rural counties which have large unincorporated areas, township governments act as the local units of government and perform important functions such as maintaining local roads, assessing properties for tax purposes and administering local programs, which sometimes include operating public schools or rural cemeteries.
Within major metropolitan areas such as the City of Chicago, the only references that one finds to former township governments are the identifiers used in listing real estate parcels for taxation. Check a real estate tax bill and you will find the name of the township where the property is located. After annexing several outlying areas into the city in 1889, many township governments were simply abolished in such outlying districts as Hyde Park, Jefferson, Lakeview and Rogers Park among other places. These names only persist in terms of assessing and publicizing property tax rates or as local neighborhood references in conversations.
Over the years, the role of modern township governments has gradually evolved and changed. Frequently, township governments provide social services to the elderly, the poor and, sometimes, promote public health initiatives. A few Cook County townships continue operate public cemeteries, especially if the townships in question are located in the former hinterlands. Throughout suburban Cook County such governments continue to exist, but the size and scope of individual townships vary considerable.
Arguments in support of dissolving Evanston’s residual township government relied upon several unsubstantiated claims have been made as to the huge potential for savings to the taxpayers. Numbers have been tossed around which have claimed savings ranging from $500,000.00 to $750,000.00 annually. Efforts to document such potential savings have not been forthcoming.
What makes such claims immediately suspect is that the size of Evanston’s township government has already been pared down considerably in comparison to its neighbors: Evanston’s aldermen double as the township trustees and the city clerk also serves as township clerk. Evanston has only two other elected township officials, the supervisor and the assessor. Both positions are considered part-time. The City of Evanston has already absorbed most of the township government’s functions. In other Cook County townships, the number of officials varies from place to place, but a full contingent of township officials could include a supervisor, an assessor, a roads and highway commissioner, a clerk and a collector as well as a board of trustees. The number of township trustees can vary based upon population, but usually the board of trustees consist of a total of four trustees, plus a supervisor who acts as the presiding officer.
It is difficult to imagine much in the way of actual savings resulting from dissolving two part-time, elected positions since the tax revenues and governmental duties are simply going to be transferred to other offices.
What is the motivation behind the move to consolidate the two governments? Some persons suspect that the City Hall planning and development staff would prefer to eliminate the township assessor’s office and seize control of its property tax and transfer records.
Apparently, a handful of determined citizen activists have sometimes accessed such records to check on commercial land development schemes promoted by the city government bureaucrats and elected officials. Sunshine and transparency are wonderful progressive terms until a local leftist politician finds himself or herself in the governing majority rather than in the loyal opposition.
Others say that the township dissolution proposal is more in the nature of a naked power grab. The City Council would get absolute control of the dollars held in township accounts without having to prepare an additional budgets or being subjected to separate audits.
To advance the cause of eliminating township government, the Evanston political machine looked to generate public support by sponsoring a referendum. What made the effort look clumsy was that the referendum issue was raised during a trustees’ meeting rather than being initiated by the normal petition gathering process provided for in the state statutes.
It also does not speak well of the Evanston elected officials inasmuch as several of the individuals were unable to differentiate between their dual roles as aldermen and trustees at various times. What made the advisory referendum even more problematic is that the entire review process , including the City Attorney Grant Farrar, seems to have ignored the Illinois Compiled Statutes in advance of promoting the controversial referendum. In effect, the current laws do not provide for the specific remedy that the elected officials were trying to implement.
Portions of the Illinois Township Code are antiquated. The code harkens back to an era when the principal means of transportation for most persons were horse drawn carriages. The Evanston City Council members literally put the horse before the cart in that the statutes governing the discontinuance of township governments require that such governments be discontinued on a county-wide basis and that such questions of public policy need to be the result of a petition gathering process. Such petitions need to be signed by at least ten percent of all registered voters in each township within a county. There are a total of thirty such townships, including Evanston, in Cook County. Something tells me that organizing registered voters and politicians from the other twenty-nine townships from Lake Cook Road to the Indiana state line in agreement would be as simple as several million herding cats.
Saner voices raised the issue of the legality of the referendum and pointed to the prospect of a lengthy court battle challenging the legality of such a vote. Advocates of the referendum on the City Council ignored this advice, but tried to square the circle by making the referendum merely advisory rather than binding. Afterwards, the same elected officials contacted Illinois State Senator Jeff Schoenberg (D-9th), a reliable ally of the Evanston ruling clique, and asked him to sponsor legislation to revise the Township Code. Obviously, no one was present in Con Law when the lecturer’s topic was the express constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws. The correct course of action would have been to revise the state statutes to permit individual townships to be discontinued before the referendum question was approved for the ballot, not afterwards.
The power play backfired in spectacular fashion. If the elected officials could not understand the Illinois Statutes, there were some citizen activists who were prepared to give them an education. More on that topic tomorrow.
Daniel J. Kelley is a contributor to The Chicago Daily Observer.
image Tinker Toys were manufactured in Evanston.