Want a say about township government? Now's the time

Last year, the Daily Herald investigated township government spending and found part-time trustees getting pension benefits, more than $1 million being spent on free health insurance for elected officials, and highway commissioners receiving substantial salaries while maintaining only a few miles of road.

Some township officials were quick to make changes that prioritized spending, eliminated perks and saved taxpayers money.

“We voted just last week that trustees will no longer participate in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund after we did a time-analysis study to determine whether the trustee position met the requirements,” said Libertyville Township Supervisor Kathleen O'Connor. “It didn't.”

Other townships haven't changed how they operate.

“That was like that when I started here,” said Schaumburg Township Supervisor Mary Wroblewski, regarding township trustees currently receiving health insurance benefits.

At upcoming annual township meetings, residents have the chance for a direct say in how their township operates.

But now's the time: a deadline to get a public petition on the agenda is Thursday.

Every year, each township across the state holds a gathering on the second Tuesday of April. This year it's April 10, though some townships may choose to push it back a week because of Passover. The purpose of the meeting is to allow residents to learn about the township government's dealings over the past year and voice their opinions about the state of the township. Residents are also able to vote on certain issues and propose changes to township government at the meeting.

It's “true democracy in action,” said Bryan Smith, executive director of Township Officials of Illinois. Registered voters at the meeting have the power to vote directly on about 38 different issues ranging from buying, selling and leasing property to setting up mental health and mosquito abatement services to upgrading or purchasing property tax assessment equipment.

Some taxpayer advocacy groups believe participation has become more restricted as a result of a 2008 law that specifically outlines which powers are granted to residents of a township.

“It's gotten more difficult for people to place items on the agenda for these annual meetings,” said Terry Pastika, executive director for Citizens Advocacy Center in Elmhurst.

But residents retain the ability to place an advisory question on the next election ballot. All it takes is a majority of the residents attending the April meeting to support a proposed advisory question and it will appear on November's ballot.

It's just a matter of getting the item on the annual meeting's agenda. That requires that either the board add it at its March meeting or residents submit petitions to the township by Thursday with 15 township voters' signatures to request agenda items for the annual meeting. A township official reviews submitted petitions to ensure they meet the criteria.

Most township officials said they have so far received no public petitions for the annual meeting agenda.

If residents are successful at getting items on the agenda, it means voters in Addison, Aurora, Bloomingdale, Hanover and York townships could ask their township leaders to follow the examples of Libertyville, Milton, Naperville and Leyden townships, which ceased allowing trustees to participate in a pension program in the wake of the Daily Herald investigations.

Voters could ask about continued health insurance coverage for part-time trustees. Leyden, Maine, Schaumburg, Wheeling and Addison townships offer the insurance. Most other townships have ended that perk, including four this year. In addition, more than two dozen suburban townships offer free health insurance benefits to elected officials like assessor and highway commissioner at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1 million combined in 2010.

Cook County residents could call for a vote to gauge whether voters want to eliminate the position of highway commissioner, where in townships like Elk Grove and Leyden, the commissioners make about $46,000 and $72,000 a year, respectively, to be in charge of maintaining less than 30 miles of road combined.

This issue has become political in Schaumburg Township, where Wroblewski would like to get rid of Highway Commissioner Bob Fecarotta, but won't propose eliminating the post. She's afraid if the job goes, so does the tax levy that supports the maintenance of the township's 10 miles of roads and bridges.

“I would love to put that up to the voters, but not until there are assurances that there's going to be funds to maintain the roads,” she said.

Wroblewski said she's talked with county and overlapping municipal officials about taking over responsibility of the roads if the position is eliminated, but they've balked.

Though he ironically believes that his post should be eliminated, Fecarotta is concerned that the board would be poor stewards of the road department's funds. He wants the money turned over to Cook County, along with the department's two full-time employees, who would continue to do the work.

“I feel any road and bridge highway department in suburbs of Cook County that has 10 miles or less should be eliminated and be under the county highway department with the funds going to Cook County,” he said. “Besides saving taxpayers money, this also takes away the politics of local government.”

At any rate, Wroblewski said there are no plans currently to discuss eliminating the highway commissioner's post at the annual meeting.

But that doesn't mean the topic is off limits to residents.

“They could just bring it up under general discussion and voice their displeasure with it,” Smith said.

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