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At a Feb. 22 meeting nearly consumed by complaints, objections and procedural considerations, a majority of the Evanston Township electors present directed Township Clerk Rodney Greene to file with the local and county election boards an objection to a referendum question concerning Evanston Township.
The meeting was called ostensibly to protest – and ultimately seek withdrawal of – the referendum question, as having been placed there illegally.
The question is, “Should the Evanston Township Board continue to pursue the issue of dissolving Evanston Township?”
It is advisory only. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said in December that the Township trustees, who approved the referendum question, are simply asking for the opinion of the voters.
Under the Illinois Township Code, a special township meeting may be called by a petition signed by at least 15 township electors. An elector is any registered voter living in the township. Under the Code, a majority of the electors present at a special meeting may take a wide range of actions specified in the Code.
Elector Mary Baker called this Feb. 22 meeting, having presented a petition with 22 signatures, said Clerk Greene. About 30 electors, including six Township trustees, attended the meeting.
Padma Rao, who successfully sued the City over a tree in an alley, was elected moderator. Her first act was to say that she would not abide by the rules set by Clerk Greene, which would have limited each speaker to four minutes and ended the meeting at 7:20 p.m.
Instead, she said, each speaker would have unlimited time and would have the opportunity to speak again after each elector had spoken once. She said she felt limiting speakers’ time was a “prior restraint.”
Some speakers objected to the procedure followed by the Township trustees in approving the referendum question, saying they had no notice.
The trustees discussed the question at two public meetings, one in November and one in December, finally approving the form of the question on Dec. 5.
Others said they did not believe the form of the question was proper or that the trustees had the authority to place the question on the ballot. They cited the Township Code, which says that a referendum question about whether to dissolve “Township organization” must be approved by 10 percent of the registered voters in each township in a county. Ms. Baker said that would have required the approval of 36,000 voters.
Betty Ester said she was “surprised about the Dec. 5 meeting” and said the township budget is $1.2 million, not $1.3 million as said at that meeting. “If you are going to get rid of the Township … tell how much it will cost,” she added.
At a forum about township government on Feb. 15, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin said the estimated annual savings if the Township government were dissolved would be about $500,000.
Junad Rizki said the City’s recent “Highlights” publication erroneously stated that there had been no increase in the City’s portion of the property tax bill, when in fact the increase was more than 4 percent. “This is an election about telling us facts. The City did not tell the truth about taxes.” The issue is trust, he said. “Even though the question is advisory, it is a matter of trust.”
Kevin O’Connor said he had no problem with asking the voters their opinion, “but democratic process must be followed.”
Priscilla Giles said dissolution of the Township “means loss of jobs. The Township of Evanston provides medical assistance, rent assistance and job training. They should keep providing this assistance to the poor. [Dissolving the Township] seems like a legal way of driving out the poor.”
The City has said it would assume those responsibilities if the Township were dissolved. Elizabeth Hayford said, “The City Manager has said the City will take over the services of the Township,” She added that she thought the referendum “is not in violation of the Township Code, because it is not binding – it is not a referendum for dissolution.”
Donald Wilson, who serves as alderman of the City’s Fourth Ward and as Township trustee, spoke about the process.
Saying he was speaking as an elector, not a trustee, he said, “Tonight I am very, very disappointed with what I perceive to be a lack of respect for the democratic process. As a trustee, I voted not to have this referendum. The decision that the other trustees made was ‘What could be wrong with [seeking] the opinion of the voters of Evanston?’”
Mr. Wilson said much of the special township meeting had been taken up with complaints and reading the agenda rather than discussing the issue of Township government.
“You have to inform yourselves not by complaining or coming to a meeting. I hope you will take time … to respect the democratic process. … I feel blessed to participate in the democratic process,” said Mr. Wilson.
The Township trustees were precluded from presenting their side when Ms. Rao refused to let the trustees’ attorney, Michael Kasper, speak about the process. City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz hired Mr. Kasper because City attorney Grant Farrar said he had a conflict of interest.
Ms. Rao said that since Mr. Farrar had a conflict of interest, anyone hired by the trustees would have a similar conflict of interest. Mr. Kasper said he had “no contract” with the City and so did not have a conflict of interest. Ms. Rao nonetheless refused to let him speak about the memo he wrote or to explain why he had no conflict of interest.
Instead she asked attorney Douglas Cannon his opinion. Mr. Cannon, who was hired by Ms. Rao for this and other suits against the City, said he believed the conflict of interest extended to Mr. Kasper and that Mr. Kasper should not be allowed to give his legal opinion. Further, since Mr. Kasper is not a resident of Evanston and thus not an elector, he should not be allowed to speak at all, said Ms. Rao.
Mr. Bobkiewicz tried to speak as an elector. When he tried to read Mr. Kasper’s opinion, Ms. Rao would not let him continue. Mr Bobkiewicz asked that the opinion be incorporated into the minutes. He said, “I would like to read the memorandum, but since you will not let me, I will sit down.”
Ms. Rao asked the electors for a motion on the referendum question. “We need to kill it,” said Ms. Baker.
Clerk Greene said he had contacted the office of County Clerk David Orr in January. “I sent him a letter saying ‘I believe the action was not procedurally correct, but I certified the question,’” he told the electors. He said the Clerk’s office responded that the “Clerk has no authority in the area of township law.”
The ballots were already printed by the time of his letter, Clerk Greene said. “The only thing we can do about that ballot is to go to the polls.”
Ms. Rao’s objection was filed on Jan. 20, which was too late, Clerk Greene said. On the motion of Mr. O’Connor the electors remaining at the meeting voted 13-4 to forward Ms. Rao’s objection to the referendum question to the local and the Cook County election boards.