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Evanston’s continuing efforts to consolidate Township operations with the City took two simultaneous steps forward during a town meeting that took place Nov. 29 and continued Dec. 5. One step will be a non-binding referendum on March 20, 2012, asking voters whether the City should continue pursuing dissolution. The second step took the form of a resolution seeking guidance from state legislators as to how to dissolve the township given “murky,” “cloudy” and “unsettled” laws on the topic.

Votes were initially taken at the Nov. 29 half of the meeting when City Council, sitting as the Township Board, also narrowly decided against placing a binding referendum on the ballot. The continuation of the meeting was for the purpose of approving the language of the ordinance setting the non-binding referendum and the separate resolution seeking guidance from state officials.

The Dec. 5 meeting, however, brought dozens of residents to chambers seeking explanation and clarification. It was the first time since dissolution discussions began in earnest at the first of the year that a significant number of residents appeared to question the decision, and they arrived after the votes had been taken. Most expressed concern about general assistance and counseling that residents receive at township offices. A few stated support for the taxpayer assistance provided by the Assessor’s Office.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, thanked residents for coming and said that Council (Town Board) was hearing what he had heard since the process began. His constituents, he said, were not in favor of dissolution.

At the Nov. 29 meeting, a clear majority of the aldermen (sitting as Township trustees) supported pursuing dissolution. Only Ald. Braithwaite and Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, opposed dissolution, and both because the constituencies they serve want to preserve the Township. Ald. Holmes said she has not heard anyone tell her to dissolve, but “it might just be the people that I serve.”

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, in contrast, said, “I have yet to hear anyone say, ‘Let’s not do this.’” Alderman Coleen Burrus said that she hears people asking about dissolution “all the time.” Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said he favored dissolution. Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, has been a long-time vocal advocate for dissolution.

Murky Procedure, Unsettled Law

On the procedural side, however, several aldermen agreed with Town Clerk Rodney Greene, who quoted an Illinois Code provision requiring 10 percent of registered voters in all townships in a county to petition for dissolution. Ald. Wilson said, “We can choose to disregard that at our peril.”

City Attorney Grant Farrar said that a DuPage County judge ruled the Illinois Code as unconstitutional in that it conflicted with the state constitution. But he called the issue “unsettled” and “cloudy.”

Greg Polini, an attorney retained by Township Assessor Bonnie Wilson, said that in his opinion the matter was not unclear at all. The City’s referendum was, in his opinion, clearly illegal. Oak Park Township Assessor (and president of the Cook County Township Assessors) Ali Elsaffar agreed, saying, “What is being proposed here cannot legally be done.”

Seeking Advice From Residents, Legislators

Ald. Rainey proposed that rather than pursue a binding referendum, the City should ask voters their opinion through a nonbinding referendum. Mr. Farrar said that under Illinois law issues of the form of government cannot be presented through a nonbinding referendum. Mayor Tisdahl balked, saying that under that interpretation Council could not ask its constituents what they want.

Ald. Wilson proposed waiting for guidance from the state, and presenting state legislators with a resolution seeking an answer. Ald. Burrus and Ald. Fiske doubted whether Springfield would do anything, but in the end the resolution passed 6-3, with Alds. Tendam, Burrus and Braithwaite voting no.

Ald. Grover proposed a binding referendum, but the vote fell short 5-4 with Alds. Braithwaite, Wynne, Wilson, Holmes and Rainey voting no. She then proposed a non-binding referendum.

Initially, the nonbinding passed 5-4, with Ald. Rainey switching from no to yes. By Dec. 5, once the language had been added to the proposed ordinance, the “yes” side of the ledger added Ald. Wynne. As a result, the March 20 ballot will ask voters the following question: Should the Evanston Township Board continue to pursue the issue of dissolving Evanston Township?”

There will be many questions asked, and some answered, between now and then. It is becoming impossible to ignore the racial and geographic divide the controversy has produced, with Township supporters primarily African American and concentrated in the Second and Fifth wards. Also, State Representative Robyn Gabel appeared at the Rules Committee meeting Dec. 5 and promised to have an answer for legislative lawyers.

Lobbying, substance versus procedure, racial politics and threatened lawsuits, with the Township Assessor’s office as a bit of a wildcard, all enter the mix to be stirred up with uncertain results coming on or before late March 2012. Stay tuned.