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The advisory referendum question about Evanston Township government on the March 20 primary election ballot appears straightforward: “Should the Evanston Township Board continue to pursue the issue of dissolving Evanston Township?”

It is nonetheless punctuated by questions that voters in Evanston are asking publicly and privately: Is the referendum question legal? How, if at all, can the government of the Township of Evanston be eliminated or dissolved? What will the result mean?

Conflicting Codes on Dissolution

Many changes in the structure of local government must be made after an affirmative vote on a binding referendum question.

There is disagreement, however, about how Evanston Township can be discontinued. Some people, relying on the Illinois Township Code, say that it can be dissolved only by a vote in which voters of all townships in Cook County participate.

Others, relying on Article VII of the Illinois Consitution and the Election Code, say Evanston Township can be dissolved with approval of a referendum in Evanston Township only.

City Attorney Grant Farrar, however, said in December the issue of dissolving township government is “unsettled” and “cloudy.” He noted that in June of last year, DuPage County Circuit Court Judge Robert Byrne ruled that a section of the Township Code dealing with abolishing townships was unconstitutional. The DuPage County case has been appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

When the Township trustees last year approved the referndum question, they also resolved to seek help from State legislators to clarify how the Township may be dissolved.

The Evanston Township question on the March ballot is advisory, the trustees agreed, so they could ask residents of Evanston how they felt about the matter.

The Trustees will consider the results of the referendum, legislation in Springfield and other factors before deciding whether and how to proceed.

The Decision to Dissolve

The decision to pursue the dissolution of the Township was not unanimous among the members, or trustees, of the Township Board.

Both Aldermen Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, and Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said some of their constituents oppose dissolving Township government. In contrast, Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, said he had yet to hear anyone oppose a move to eliminate Township government.

Evanston Township, Pros and Cons

The Township of Evanston has two main functions: administering General Assistance grants and helping residential property owners appeal their property tax bills.

Critics of the township point to what they consider excessive administrative costs, a large reserve fund and services that are either redundant or could be absorbed by the City.

Township Trustee and Seventh Ward Alderman Jane Grover has repeatedly said she thinks the ratio of administrative expenses to income is higher than normal for not-for-profit agencies.

Over the course of several Human Services Committee meetings, Ald. Grover asked for information from the Township, which she said was often incomplete. Some of the information provided by the Township showed that seven full-time workers service between 83 and 90 General Assistance clients each month.

The Township Assessor’s office provides property-tax help to residents. Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin has held several workshops regarding the process of appealing residential property tax assessments. 

Residents who support retaining Township government have pointed to the suppport it provides to some of Evanston’s neediest residents. At several public meetings, residents have praised Township personnel for their help in appealing property tax bills.

The Legislative Approach – A Long Road

In Springfield, meanwhile, State Senator Jeffrey Schoenberg introduced legislation earlier this month in an attempt to clarify the legal steps necessary to discontinue Evanston Township government and provide for the transfer of Evanston Township responsibilities to Evanston City government.

The bill provides that the Evanston Township trustees may submit, by ordinance, a binding referendum question about dissolving the Township in a “general or consolidated election.”

Under Sen. Schoenberg’s bill, the binding question would read “Shall the township organization be continued in Evanston Township?”

If Sen. Schoenberg’s bill passes, and if the Township trustees place a binding referendum question on the ballot in a subsequent election, and if “a majority of votes of the township” are against continuing the township government, then “township organization shall cease in the township on Jan. 1 of the calendar year immediately following” the election.

At this stage it is unclear whether the bill will become law.

Questions About the Question

Although the referendum question is only advisory, some residents feel that it should be withdrawn from the March 20 ballot. Evanston residents are “electors” of the Township, and a group of no fewer than 15 electors can call for a special Township meeting.

That has been done, and the special Township meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Feb. 22 in City Council chambers, 2100 Ridge Ave., to discuss the possibility of removing the question from the ballot.

What, if anything, the Township trustees will do with the results of the referendum remains to be seen.

Early voting begins Feb. 27. Along with this advisory question, voters will be asked to weigh in on two binding questions, about electricity aggregation and a bond issue by School District 65 for middle school upgrades and a new school in the City’s central core.