Editorial: County's actions on referendums undermine confidence of and in voters
DuPage County voters got some unwelcome messages from their county board this week. Under the guise of taking the pulse of the community on issues facing the county, county board members removed a binding referendum from the November ballot that would have forced a merger of the recorder and clerk's offices, then they immediately filled the ballot with three banal questions, raising cynical questions about what really is going on.
What, to begin, are the issues the board considered more urgent than consolidating county government? Try these: Whether law enforcement and public safety should continue to be the county's top budgeting priority; whether the county should stockpile COVID-19 supplies for agencies that may need them; and whether the county should fund and support training that reduces the risk of injury to law enforcement officers and criminal suspects.
By their nature, advisory referendums hold little or no value, but these three questions strain even the standard of pretending to want voters' advice. Surely, determining whether to maintain sufficient supplies for nursing homes and other agencies during a pandemic is as much a matter of budgetary planning as any other question of spending priorities the board could face. Likewise, even if one credits the board with showing sensitivity to current concerns about police behavior, trustees hardly need a public referendum to tell them whether to train deputies properly. And if, as one charitably hopes, the law-enforcement spending question is meant to suggest interest in whether citizens want or don't want to somehow redirect policing resources to address social justice concerns, it needs to be worded that way. The approved question is clearly drawn to elicit a response indicating the status quo is just fine with everyone.
County Board Chairman Dan Cronin -- usually an ardent advocate for government consolidation -- contended the recorder-clerk issue would be "undermined" if placed before voters, because an independent consultant had found the merger likely wouldn't save much money -- unless jobs were eliminated. The consultants did say, however, that combining the agencies "could ultimately provide for more efficient provision of service."
Is the possibility of efficiency alone not reason enough to seek the will of the voters? Should voters not get to question whether a consolidated office should examine its head count? Does the board, which a year ago considered this important enough to let voters decide, now not have faith they can make the decision that's in their best interest?
Replacing a substantive referendum question at the eleventh hour with three pointless softball issues only fuels cynicism about government. True, the deadline has passed for a citizens group to try to resurrect the recorder-clerk merger before November, so the board can claim it wasn't trying to get around the state law that limits local referendums to three on any one ballot. But there's no denying the appearance of an attempt to disenfranchise voters.
Moreover, in selecting three hardly burning questions whose answers they just couldn't work out on their own, board members rejected a potential fourth that, because of a legal exception, might have been added -- whether the size of the board should be reduced and some of them should lose their jobs.
On that matter, they apparently didn't need any advice. Or perhaps the better verb is want. Either way, their decision to pull one meaningful question away from voters and mollify them with three meaningless no-brainers only invites suspicion. What is undermined is the confidence that officials care about getting their constituents' advice -- whether from a ballot initiative or in any other form.