In addition to the candidates for various offices, voters in Evanston will be asked to consider three referendum questions on the March 20 ballot. One of these, about pursuing dissolution of the government of the Township of Evanston, is advisory, that is, the result of the vote does not mandate any action on the part of local government officials.

The other two are binding, that is, if they are approved, more action will be taken. One of these is from School District 65 to raise funds for middle-school improvements and for a new K-5 school. The other, from the City, is about electricity aggregation.

The RoundTable’s analyses of the referendum questions concerning electricity aggregation appear below. An article concerning the District 65 referendum and township dissolution is on page 26.

Electricity Aggregation:

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? 

One of the two binding referendum questions for Evanstonians on the March 20 ballot asks whether the residents of Evanston shall authorize the City to aggregate small business and residential electricity accounts, bundling them into a single large account so as to seek cheaper electricity rates. The process, called Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) would enable the City, as aggregator, to seek a “volume discount” for its residential and small business electricity consumers.

Evanston is one of about 250 municipalities in Illinois that are considering CCA. The Village of Oak Park approved a referendum for CCA in April of last year, said K. C. Poulos, sustainability manager for the Village of Oak Park. Oak Park’s is an opt-out program, as Evanston’s would be. With the supplier chosen by the Village Board, residents who participate in the aggregation saw a 25 percent reduction on the supply charge of their electric bills, she said, resulting in about a 15 percent overall reduction in the monthly electric bill.

Any discount obtained would be only on the price of electricity itself – the kilowatt-hour charge on the bill. Commonwealth Edison owns the distribution lines in the City and would continue to charge for the distribution and transmission and to maintain its power lines and infrastructure.

The ability to shop around for electricity affords the opportunity not only to seek the lowest prices but also to choose from an array of energy sources. In other words, coal- or nuclear-generated power would not be the only options; “green power,” power generated from sustainable sources such as wind or water, might also be choices.

Oak Park chose a provider of “100 percent renewable energy credits from Illinois sources,” Ms. Poulos said.

This referendum question is a “binding” rather than an “advisory” one. That is, if it is approved, the City government must act in conformance with it. It will not be binding upon all residents, however. There is an “opt-out” provision of which Evanston residents can avail themselves after the City has selected a provider and the new rates are known. Oak Park’s program has a similar opt-out provision.

Ms. Poulos said she has not seen a down side to the program itself. The main problem has been other energy providers using aggressive tactics to try to lure residents away from the chosen provider. With intervention and monitoring from the Illinois Commerce Commission, most of that has stopped, she said.

The City of Evanston has promised to hold at least two public hearings if the referendum is approved, at which the topics will be operations and governance.

The RoundTable’s Feb. 15 issue carried two pieces about the electricity aggregation question: an advocacy essay by Eleanor Revelle of Citizens Greener Evanston and an explanatory piece by Elizabeth Hayford and Susan Black of the League of Women Voters of Evanston. These can be found on the RoundTable’s website, evanstonroundtable.com, in the “Opinion” section.

Township Dissolution:

Should the Evanston Town Board continue to pursue the issue of dissolving Evanston Township?

The advisory question on the March 20 ballot asks whether the Evanston Township Board, composed of the City’s aldermen, should continue to pursue dissolution of the Township government. The Township of Evanston is coterminous with the City of Evanston, but its governmental functions are distinct. Evanston Township has two main functions: to fund General Assistance grants, which go to single adults in need of support; and to help residents appeal their property tax assessments.

Critics of Township government say its duties can be performed more cheaply by City of Evanston personnel. City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz has said the City could absorb the functions of the Township. Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin of Evanston said the City could save up to $500,000 per year if the Township government were dissolved.

Those who advocate maintaining the Township government say they do not believe the services now provided by the Township would be as fully and adequately provided by the City as by the Township.

When the Township trustees decided late last year to pursue dissolving the government of the Township of Evanston, they decided to take a two-prong approach, seeking advice from local legislators and asking for resident input by way of the advisory referendum.

In Springfield, State Senator Jeff Schoenberg has drafted legislation that would allow the Evanston Township trustees to place a binding referendum question about dissolving Evanston Township government on the November ballot. It would also allow the City of Evanston to absorb the functions of the Township government.

The Feb. 15 guest essay by the League of Women Voters of Evanston also reported that “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.”  

Some controversy has arisen over the question, but the one objection was filed with the local and county election boards after the filing deadline. City/Township Clerk Rodney Greene advised residents at a recent meeting that the way to address the issue is by going to the polls.

Since this is an advisory referendum, it mandates no action by the Township trustees, so they are free to drop the matter or to pursue it.