Do suburbs have too many local governments for our own good?

Less than half are contested

  • Voters across the suburbs will see many uncontested races when they cast ballots on April 5.

    Voters across the suburbs will see many uncontested races when they cast ballots on April 5. Daily Herald file photo

and Projects Writer
Updated 3/14/2011 7:41 AM

It's a pickle that, every other April, manifests itself at the suburban voting booth.

Race after race -- school board, park board, library trustee -- has just one candidate per seat, if that, resulting in an automatic victory or special appointment to the slot.


Take the Fox Waterway Agency, where both open seats are uncontested.

Or Lombard's Helen Plum Memorial Library Board, where at the filing deadline, five candidates were running for seven seats.

Of course, uncontested races are not unusual -- and even expected -- these days, said Wayne Kankovsky, a candidate for the Helen Plum Library Board who has served as a library trustee for more than a decade. With a few exceptions, seats on the board over that time have gone uncontested.

"It's fairly low profile, depending on the situation with the library at that time. If there's nothing really happening, if there's no major plans involved, or crisis that has to be resolved, then people don't realize there are trustees in many cases. That affects the interest in the number of candidates."

Out of 528 local races in the upcoming April 5 election in northwest suburban Cook, and Lake, DuPage, Kane and McHenry counties, 238 are contested.

School and municipal board positions fared the best, with about 50 percent of races contested.

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But four of five regional office of education seats are uncontested; as are 47 of 70 library boards; 16 of 24 fire protection districts, and 49 of 74 park districts.

And with so many local governments, it can be a near impossible task for voters to learn about candidates from each and every level of office.

"To be informed about all of these races is essentially the equivalent of a full-time job," said Matt Streb, a Northern Illinois University political science professor.

"It's something that I think people who are politically active who believe strongly in democracy are going to struggle with. You want a democracy that's not simplistic, (but) a lot of people would argue this is putting the burden on the voter."

Illinois has more units of local government than any other state in the nation -- in particular, more special purpose local governments, according to the state comptroller's office. And many of them have not drummed up interest from local candidates.


David Morrison, associate director at the Illinois Campaign of Political Reform, said the reason for this may be rooted in Illinois history.

The 1870 Illinois Constitution (effective until 1970) limited local government debt to 5 percent of the assessed valuation of each separate municipal corporation.

"Once they maxed out on debt, they'd just take on a new (unit of government)," Morrison said. "Townships and library boards and mosquito abatement districts.

Not all are necessarily needed anymore, Morrison said.

But to try to turn back the clock -- and limit levels of government -- has become an oftentimes taboo and complicated discussion.

The new 1970 Constitution removed those tax limitation provisions, and encouraged intergovernmental cooperation more than ever before. Yet, the comptroller's office notes, the number of local governments in Illinois continued to grow. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, although the number of school districts in Illinois decreased from 1,177 in 1972 to 868 in 2010, the number of other special purpose districts grew from 2,407 in 1972 to more than 3,100 today.

Gov. Pat Quinn recently suggested that consolidating school districts by as much as two thirds would save the state $100 million in administrative costs, and that savings could be funneled back into the classroom.

The plan, though, wasn't welcomed by some suburban school officials, who say it would reduce their ability to give students individualized attention that might be lost in larger districts.

And Helen Plum library's Kankovsky believes that while municipal government consolidation efforts may be needed, it won't necessarily work in the suburbs.

"It depends on where you're talking about. Stuff that could very well be feasible in the lower part of the state, more rural, more agricultural, wouldn't necessarily be doable in the collar counties. Dramatic difference in population density," he said.

Kankovsky said one of the library board's biggest strengths is it is responsive to the specific Lombard community, knowing its issues and its tastes better than a larger body could.

"It's the opposite of NIMBY-ism," Morrison said. "I want to feather my backyard. Voters are saying don't trust your neighbors."

Still, with so many governmental units, Streb said it's "questionable how much accountability is actually taking place."

That can be changed, he said, by two things -- increased media coverage of the functions of each office, or municipalities establishing a system of checks and balances in races that are traditionally uncontested races or filled by appointment.

"No system's perfect," Streb said. "But you could try to take the pressure off the public in some ways."

Races: Candidate says media coverage, checks and balances could help ease pressure on public