Editorial: Apparently, it's up to the legislature to clarify roles in township government

Regardless of what you think about the value of township governments or the need for consolidation of government units in Illinois, recent stories out of McHenry County at least indicate a problem within the system.

The latest case involves a dispute between Grafton Township Highway Commissioner Frank Kearns and the Grafton Township Board.

Kearns asked for a 14% increase in this year's property tax levy for the highway commission. The township board thought that was too high, and trimmed the levy back to about $756,000, still about 5% higher than last year. Kearns, though, said that wasn't enough, and the reduction would actually cost his commission nearly $260,000 through 2024 because of property tax caps. He took the township to court, and last week a McHenry County judge agreed with him.

The judge, according to reports from Shaw Media, said township boards do not have the authority to modify levies of their independently elected highway commissioners. So, Kearns will get his full $821,000 levy and, to supply it, the taxpayers of Grafton Township will shell out 14% more than they paid last year.

Whether the money actually goes toward roads, though, or just ends up fattening road commission reserves is an open question, exposing a fundamental flaw in the nature of township government. On one hand, the elected representatives of Grafton Township indicated a desire for a certain level of spending on roads. On the other, the highway commissioner elected by and representing the same Grafton Township residents insisted on and received a different, higher amount.

Grafton Township's attorney in this case, Joe Gottemoller, put the dilemma in plain terms.

"The road district's checks and balances with what the rulings are today is that the budget is controlled by the board and the levy is not," Gottemoller told Shaw Media. "And that does not make a lot of sense."

Indeed, it does not. In essence, it seems to imply that a highway commissioner can collect however much taxpayer money he or she wants within the limits of the law, but the board has final say over what can be spent. And voters are faced with a confusing muddle of options if they want to hold someone accountable.

Nor is this an isolated case. It in fact follows close on the heels of a similar ruling in a similar case involving the Nunda Township Board and the Nunda Township highway commissioner. And, it almost matches for confusion a 2019 case in which the Naperville Township Board sought legislative approval for a measure that could allow it to absorb the township's road commission even though voters had approved merging the commission with the Lisle Township Highway Commission.

Government should not be confusing, and our election processes should not leave voters wondering who represents their interests or how to express their will. Perhaps ironically, it was Kearns' attorney who pointed to the place from which a solution must come.

"If you want to make changes," Jim Militello said, "you need to do so at the legislature."

Clearly, changes are needed. Lawmakers, the ball is in your court.

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