Passed by a narrow 5 to 4 vote, the motion will act as a formal survey, adding an advisory referendum to March 20 township election ballots that asks voters if they want Evanston Township to dissolve, with all its services, responsibilities, powers, assets and obligations being assumed by the City of Evanston.
The township government currently levies taxes, administers a general assistance program and assists residents with property tax assessments. The township‘s boundaries are coterminous with the city, and the Evanston City Council sits as the township’s board of trustees.
City officials have explored the idea of dissolving the township in the hope that reduced rental and personnel costs
But according to Evanston City Attorney Grant Farrar, dissolution is no easy task because conflicting state laws leave room for judicial interpretation and could put the city at legal risk.
“You have a [state] constitution, you have a township code and you have the general election code,” Farrar said. “All of these conflict at one point or another at many levels and at many ports of call.”
For example, township code states that 10 percent of registered voters from each township in Cook County would have to petition for the referendum to even make the ballot, and then that referendum would have to be passed by all townships in the county. But, according to Farrar, this statute seems to contradict the Illinois Constitution, which leaves decisions regarding the formation of government to electors living within that area’s boundaries.
The vagueness created by these incompatible statutes means that anyone living within Evanston Township boundaries could potentially sue the City of Evanston.
And though trustees voted down a motion 4 to 5 that would have placed a binding referendum on the March 20 ballot, Farrar said that the advisory referendum opens up the city to the exact same legal threats.
Additionally, Farrar said election case law is clear that changes in form of government are subject to binding referendum only, potentially meaning that the proposed advisory referendum would violate both township code and election statutes.
Some trustees felt the threat of a lawsuit was so likely, that the dissolution could end up costing the city money.
“I’m strongly believing that the cost of doing this will probably wildly exceed any cost savings we’d have,” said Trustee Donald Wilson. “I’m not interested in spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to litigate this and be pioneers in changing the way the state law is.”
Gregory Pelini, a Champaign-based attorney who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting and said he was familiar with township code, said that if hypothetically he were to take the case, he would view the advisory referendum as a “free shot” to sue the city in advance of another lawsuit when the binding referendum was put on the ballot. Pelini said that one of those lawsuits could cost the city $10,000 to $20,000 and would last an estimated six months.
Trustee Coleen Burrus said that the group should not shy away from acting, because almost every action the group makes as trustees or aldermen could bring potential lawsuits.
“I think the argument that we keep hearing,” Burrus said, “‘Oh, we may be threatened by lawsuits, somebody may sue us.’ Every day we hear that in everything we do…Yes, they may. But that does not stop us from going forward with government…Because people are going to threaten us does not mean that we should be afraid to go out and ask the question.”
Trustees also passed a motion with a 6-3 vote for city officials to draft an amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would change state statues to provide clear and simpler direction for the process of dissolving a township. The legislation will likely be handed off to Evanston’s state representatives after the trustees vote on the amendment’s language at the board’s scheduled Dec. 5 meeting.
However, a few trustees declared the motion a waste time, saying that the state legislature moves slowly, the amendment might get voted down and that lobbyists might interfere with the process. Other trustees said that they thought that if the amendment’s language were crafted carefully to affect the dissolution of coterminous townships, the legislation might receive less opposition.
Evanston is one of five coterminous townships in Cook County.
Evanston Township was formed in 1857 out of the pre-existing Ridgeville Township. The City of Evanston website states that “once Evanston became incorporated as a village and then a city, many of the township’s responsibilities were eliminated”, and “today, the city has absorbed most of the township’s functions.”
The Evanston Township Board of Trustees plan to reconvene on Dec. 5 at 7 p.m.