Franks: Let voters decide if they want to get rid of township road districts

McHenry County Board Chairman Jack D. Franks.

Anyone who wonders why voters should have the power to consolidate some of Illinois’ almost 7,000 units of government should look no further than the unfortunate goings-on at the Algonquin Township Highway Department.

Its newly elected highway commissioner has spent at least $200,000 of taxpayer money to date defending his firing of three unionized employees – should he lose, the taxpayers almost certainly will be on the hook for the employees’ legal fees, as well. Political duels and frivolous lawsuits almost bankrupted Grafton Township and left taxpayers with the bill. History could repeat itself in Algonquin Township.

A new state law allows any township board to put a referendum on the ballot abolishing its township highway district and assuming its responsibilities. It is a small step in the right direction in a state with far more governments than any other. But a bill filed by the state representative who succeeded me in the Illinois House takes a big step backward by first requiring townships to pay for a cost study.

House Bill 4190, filed Dec. 15 by Rep. Steven Reick, R-Woodstock, requires any township board seeking to eliminate its highway district by referendum to first hire an independent consulting firm, which must conclude that the abolition would be cost effective, and that the township would be able to assume the duties.

I have stayed silent in the year since Reick succeeded me in the House, watching as he has established a record of, in my opinion, protecting a status quo that Illinois taxpayers no longer can afford. I can stay silent no longer as he tries to throw another roadblock in the way of consolidation and voter empowerment.

His proposal is shockingly undemocratic on its face. It forbids elected officials from putting a binding referendum to voters without first getting a seal of approval from a private consultant. This is an unprecedented insult to representative democracy.

Reick’s bill also insults the intelligence of elected township officials and the voters who put them there. At its beating heart, House Bill 4190 is based on the assumption that the electorate has to be protected from itself.

During the 18 years I sat in the chair now occupied by Reick, I served on two blue-ribbon commissions created by two governors to explore consolidation – I served as chairman of the first. Both commissions found that, all too often, state law hinders consolidation through unnecessary and sometimes ridiculous obstacles.

Reick’s bill is a shining example of ridiculous. It proposes adding an expensive and undemocratic obstacle on the premise that elected officials and voters cannot be trusted to make educated decisions.

House Bill 4190 is nothing more than a tax on good government and reform. It’s a political literacy test to ensure that voters and the officials they elect are intelligent enough to know what they want.

What’s more, it’s yet another unfunded mandate from a General Assembly infamous for imposing them on school districts and other cash-strapped local governments. It is disappointing that Reick has authored a bill imposing an unfunded mandate, yet not surprising, since he remained absent and silent when lawmakers raised our income taxes by more than 30 percent.

It is even more disappointing to see Reick, or any lawmaker for that matter, even entertain the idea of requiring the blessing of an expensive consultant in order to put a question to the voters. 

Surely Reick will get the blessing of insiders and other lobbyists who want to preserve the status quo for their own benefit. He should be far more concerned about the blessing of the people of the 63rd District who elected him to that office.

• Jack Franks is chairman of the McHenry County Board.