Judge tosses lawsuit alleging McSweeney-sponsored law allowing township abolition in McHenry County is unconstitutional
McHenry County Associate Judge Thomas A. Meyer dismissed a lawsuit Thursday filed by Nunda and McHenry townships' road districts contending a new state law allowing local townships to be abolished through referendums is illegal under the Illinois Constitution. Attorney James Militello III, who represented the road districts in the suit, filed a notice of appeal of the decision Thursday. The lawsuit named Gov. J.B. Pritzker and McHenry County as defendants.
The road districts in their lawsuit argued the state legislation, sponsored by state Rep. David McSweeney, a Republican from Barrington Hills, and signed into law last year, was unconstitutional because it only applied to townships in McHenry County and nowhere else in Illinois. Their complaint alleged the law, which added a rule to the state's Township Code that lets voters decide whether to eliminate townships and their associated road districts in McHenry County through ballot measures, is "special or local legislation," which is prohibited from being approved by the statehouse.
The law, Militello argued, only applied it to McHenry County because the law's supporters intended to use the area as a test case for referendums seeking to abolish townships. McSweeney in a Thursday interview agreed that was the intent and said his goal was to eventually expand it to the rest of the state.
"There are townships and road districts outside McHenry County that have higher tax rates than some of the townships and road districts in McHenry County," according to the amended complaint drafted by Militello and filed in January.
McSweeney said the statehouse and the governor's office put the legislation through a rigorous review before approving and signing it into law.
"The classification in the (the new article) of the Township Code is not arbitrary," Assistant Attorney General Maggie Jones, who represented Pritzker in the case, argued in support of a motion to dismiss the case. "Here, reducing and consolidating townships in McHenry County is certainly more than rationally related when considering all of the legitimate interests of the law."
McSweeney said his decision to bring the legislation to the statehouse was partly inspired by recent activity by the Algonquin Township that he found distasteful. He pointed in particular to a 2018 Northwest Herald article about a grand jury investigation into corruption at the township's road district and Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner Andrew Gasser's use of the township marquee to criticize the Northwest Herald.
Algonquin Township now is the target of a petition backed by McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks and State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally seeking to put a ballot measure to voters in the April 2021 election that would abolish that township if approved.
"We have 7,000 units of local government in this state. I think the corruption at the townships, the fact that they're obviously spending taxpayer money on these lawsuits, shows how scared they are. What I would say is they can run but they can't hide from the taxpayers," McSweeney said.
With the law opening another door to consolidating local taxing entities, Militello's complaint said townships and road districts in McHenry County make up less than 1.5% and 2.5%, respectively, of a taxpayer's tax bill.
Voters this year by wide margins rejected ballot measures that would have abolished Nunda and McHenry townships. The McHenry Township board later sued County Clerk Joe Tirio when he declined to certify another ballot measure that would have again asked township voters to abolish the local government in this November's election because state law prohibits the same ballot measure from being asked twice within 23 months.
The McHenry Township trustees have appealed a judge's decision in support of Tirio's rejection of the ballot measure appearing on ballots in next week's election, in hopes the appellate court decides the trustees can put the question on the ballot sooner than they could under the trial court's ruling.
McHenry Township Trustee Bob Anderson, a critic of township government, said Thursday he has prepared a motion for the board's Nov. 12 agenda that, if supported by the board, will put a ballot question to voters in the April 6 election that could eliminate only the McHenry Township Road District, which is a separate taxing entity from the township itself. If voters approve that, the township would take over the district's duties and assets, Anderson said.
Voters previously decided against a measure to get rid of the road district, but the 23-month waiting period on asking that question again will be moot for the spring election, Anderson said. The ballot question, if approved by the McHenry Township board, would be identical to one being voted on now in the Nov. 3 election by residents of Elk Grove Township, which includes Elk Grove Village, Des Plaines, Arlington Heights, Rolling Meadows and Mount Prospect, Anderson said.