McHenry County-specific law unconstitutional, judge rules The Illinois Township Code article, signed in 2019, allowed only McHenry County to dissolve its townships

A McHenry County judge ruled last week that a law passed and signed by Gov. JB Pritzker in 2019, allowing residents of only McHenry County to dissolve their townships in a referendum, is unconstitutional.

The Nunda Township Road District Supervisor Mike Lesperance, later joined by the McHenry Township Road District, sued Pritzker, arguing that the law was unconstitutional as it only applied to residents of one county.

Judge Joel Berg agreed in his April 10 ruling.

"While there are several legitimate government interests served by [the law], there is no rational basis for restricting [the law] to McHenry County. The statute is therefore unconstitutional," Berg ruled.

Reached by phone this week, Lesperance said he didn't think the state would appeal the ruling. An attempt to reach the Illinois Attorney General's Office was unsuccessful.

"(The judge) shut the governor down pretty hard in the opinion," Lesperance said. "It is clear in the constitution, the laws of Illinois are for all people and all groups, not one group of people or one specific geographic area."

The law was sponsored by former Illinois Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican, who is no longer in the General Assembly. He declined to comment Thursday.

At the timing of its passage, he said the law was the first step to providing voters a way to easily dissolve township governments, first in McHenry County and then eventually the whole state.

"We need to show that it works, but in the future I plan to use this as a way to promote other types of consolidation - we need to look at school districts, park districts, municipalities," McSweeney said at the time.

Former McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, who also served in the General Assembly from 1999 to 2017, said the law was meant to be a test case for the state. While he had exited the statehouse before the law was written and signed, there are ways to write test cases that make them more general.

"You say it is a county of X population, adjacent to a county of 1 million," Franks said. That would apply to McHenry County while still remaining general, Franks said. "There are ways to do it so that it is constitutional."

The intent, when he was working with McSweeney on a version of the law previously, was to use McHenry County as testing ground "to save taxpayers money and dissolve unnecessary units of government," Franks said.

Townships, he said, are "vestiges (of) 1800s government in Illinois. We ought to allow citizens" to go to referendum to decide if they want them, Franks said.

They make sense in rural areas, Franks said, where townships do not overlap with municipalities and are closer to residents that the county.

Current McHenry County Board Chairman Mike Beuhler said he thought the law was flawed. The McHenry County Board asked lawmakers in 2021 to change or repeal the law.

If a referendum were approved by voters - which the law either allowed the township board or voters, by petition, to put on a ballot - the township's duties would then be turned over to the county.

Nothing in the law told counties what taking over township roles would entail, Beuhler said.

It also called for a 10% reduction in property taxes if the township was dissolved, but with no guidelines as to how the county would make up the differences.

"What is the cost of taking on the responsibilities" of a township? Beuhler said. "Some costs would increase."

There are "natural ways" for townships to go by the wayside, Lesperance said, including for municipalities to annex them. "As municipalities grow, townships become smaller"

It is not a terrible law as residents should be able to do away with townships, Lesperance said. "But let it be for all of Illinois, not just McHenry County."

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