Since its founding 90 years ago, the League of Women Voters of Evanston has been committed to increasing citizen understanding of public policy issues and promoting citizen participation in government. The most common form of participation is voting, and next month on March 20, Evanston residents will go to the polls to select state, county and national candidates for the November election and to vote on three referendum items on the ballot. One referendum comes from District 65, and the other two relate to steps that may be taken by our Evanston government bodies, one for City Council and one for the Township Board. Many Evanstonians will know that these bodies are identical and reflect the fact that the City and the township have jurisdiction over identical areas.
The two government-related ballot items reflect contrasting elements of civic operations. One addresses the possibility of dissolution of the Township, and draws upon deep-seated feelings of Evanston residents about the responsibility of government and the quality of life provided for Evanston residents. The other proposes a new approach to providing electricity service to Evanston households and small businesses, based on technical and fiscal analyses.
Many Evanstonians may be uncertain about the potential impact of these ballot proposals. To assist each voter in making a careful decision, the League of Women Voters has prepared information sheets outlining the potential impact of these measures and the arguments for or against their adoption. (Information sheets will be available on the LWVE website www.lwve.org and distributed around Evanston.) Other groups are preparing similar materials and sponsoring discussion meetings. Some materials may be advocating a particular position, but our aim is to provide objective information and encourage every voter to consider a wide range of perspectives before casting a vote.
Dissolution of the Township. One ballot referendum reads: Should the Evanston Town Board continue to pursue the issue of dissolving Evanston Township? This referendum is purely advisory, and if it passes, it will only authorize the Town Board (identical with City Council) to continue to investigate how current Township services could be delivered under another system and to determine a process through which it could be pursued.
The first consideration for evaluating this proposal is to clarify that Evanston Township currently has two main responsibilities: 1) to fund, through a separate tax levy, General Assistance grants to the neediest single adults; and 2) to advise citizens how to appeal their property assessments. These functions are overseen by two part-time elected officials, the Supervisor and the Assessor, and carried out by six or eight full and part-time Township employees. Evanston Township is coterminous with the City of Evanston, which means the boundaries are identical.
The main argument in favor of dissolving the Township is that the services could be carried out equally well and more economically by City employees working in the Civic Center. Costs to the taxpayer could be reduced for personnel, rent on the current west-side township office, and administrative overhead. This case was made in a memo presented to the Township Board in October and has been repeated in later City Council meetings. The Better Government Association (BGA) presented a study in fall 2011 asserting the benefits of consolidating multiple layers of government in Illinois, including the dissolution of township bodies coterminous with municipal governments as is the case in Evanston. BGA believes that the township structure is inefficient and outmoded.
Many Evanston residents support the Township and have urged a no vote on the referendum. At several City Council meetings, citizens have argued against dissolving the Township and expressed appreciation for the work township employees do to assist residents. They argue that the current Township structure and staff provide valuable services and should be continued. Elected Township officials have also stated that the present system works well and should not be changed. Some aldermen and residents have suggested that efforts should be made to address any problems in Township operation rather than working for dissolution.
One reason that the ballot proposal is framed as an advisory motion allowing further pursuit of the question is that the Illinois Constitution, including the Township Code and the Election Code, contains confusing and contradictory clauses related to dissolving units of government. If the referendum passes, City Council and City staff will continue to pursue advice and/or assistance from the Attorney General’s Office and members of the Illinois legislature to clarify legal steps needed to dissolve the Township. In early February, legislation was proposed in Springfield to this end.
Community Choice Electricity Aggregation. The second referendum reads: Shall the City of Evanston have the authority to arrange for the supply of electricity for its residential and small commercial retail customers who have not opted out of such a program? This is a response to a new Illinois law that allows local governments to bundle together, or aggregate, residential and small commercial electricity customer accounts and seek bids from electricity producers for cheaper rates than Commonwealth Edison charges. Several municipalities in Illinois have already negotiated such contracts, and 75 other communities in Cook County have similar items on the ballot.
If the referendum passes, Evanston will seek proposals from the open market for cheaper electric power. Oak Park and other communities that have pursued aggregation contracts have found electricity supplies at a lower cost. The City would develop a competitive selection process for requesting proposals and selecting an alternate electricity supplier, and will hold at least two public hearings to discuss the proposals and listen to citizen comment.
- Contracting with a provider that uses renewable sources would support the Evanston Climate Action Plan goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve a lower carbon footprint. Citizens for a Greener Evanston and other environmental groups have already expressed support for this proposal.
If Evanston signs an agreement with an alternate electricity supplier, ComEd will continue to distribute electricity to customers of any providers and will bill customers for distribution costs, as it does now, and, as alternate supplier’s agent, for the cost of electricity from any provider. Customers will still contact ComEd for any service questions, including outages. Changing electricity providers will not affect the frequency of electricity outages.
Supporters of aggregation stress the fact that no one will have to participate in the contract negotiated by the City. All residents and small business customers can choose to opt out of the program altogether and continue with electricity from ComEd or another supplier. Residents who already have selected an alternate supplier can continue with their current provider.
If the referendum passes, the City will clarify requirements for a new supplier and will hold public meetings to obtain citizen input into contract issues. It will launch a competitive proposal process later in the spring and select an alternate retail supplier in the summer. It will then publicize the new arrangement and announce the process for customers to opt out of the new contract. The new electricity supply will probably begin later in the summer.
Conclusion. Evanston is a community where residents pride themselves on active participation in the governing process. Exercising the right to vote is the heart of citizen participation, and the March election will allow us not only to select candidates but to tell our elected officials how we want them to proceed. The League of Women Voters of Evanston urges all Evanston residents to consider carefully the referendum issues on the ballot and take the opportunity to help shape the future character of our city.