In the first of a three-step process that could change the mix of River Forest government units, voters this November will be asked in an advisory referendum if village and township governments should merge.
A group of local residents filed the necessary petitions Monday to place the advisory referendum on the ballot.
The action proposed in the resident-driven advisory referendum measure only can take effect if legislation is eventually passed in Springfield allowing for the voters to cast ballots on a binding initiative and if voters approve it.
In March, efforts to get a measure on the ballot as a binding initiative for November appeared dead when the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Chris Welch, tabled it. Then this spring, a group of residents started considering an effort to push for a non-binding initiative.
"The idea was to put this before the voters, and that's a good thing," said Rick Gillis, one of the residents who helped push the question forward. "This is a big issue, the combining of two of our village taxing bodies. It's not a village or the township decision, but rather a decision that has to be made by the residents of River Forest."
Carla Sloan, the elected supervisor of River Forest Township, said in an e-mail response to Wednesday Journal, "River Forest Township has been fully aware of the petition efforts and acknowledges that some of the village (government) and park district leadership are part of this activity. We are confident that the residents of River Forest will continue to be open and willing to listen to the facts regarding River Forest Township and the value provided by its programs and services."
In excess of 400 residents signed petitions – somewhat more than the requisite number required by law. The petitions were submitted at village hall before the 5 p.m. Monday deadline. The deadline to launch a challenge to the referendum petitions is 5 p.m. this coming Monday. As of Wednesday morning, no one has challenged the measure.
The group had to gather 378 signatures – at least 8 percent of the total votes cast for candidates for Governor in the preceding gubernatorial election by the registered voters of the municipality – to place the question on the ballot.
The effort to gather signatures on the advisory question started during the first part of July.
The measure on the Nov. 4 ballot will read this way:
"Shall the residents of the Village of River Forest, IL, endeavor to lower their tax burden and use their tax dollars more efficiently by merging the existing Village of River Forest and Township of River Forest administrative and governmental services into the Village of River Forest only and dissolve and abolish township government while still maintaining the same level of constituent services?"
What does it mean? Said Gillis, it means "in an effort to lower taxes and use tax dollars more efficiently, shall the Township of River Forest merge with the Village of River Forest, with the services currently provided by the township continued by the village at the same level of service?"
In her email, Sloan pointed to recent efforts by the township and village government to discuss possible ways the two governments could collaborate to lower costs. "On July 14, the River Forest Township board and the River Forest village board sat down in good faith and agreed to work together to explore ways to reduce costs and enhance programs and services for our residents. Both board remain committed to this ongoing effort, which includes planned new collaborative outreach activities," said Sloan.
Some form of ballot initiative had been contemplated since January when Welch initially filed HB 4425. The legislation would have allowed a referendum to be placed on the ballot calling for consolidation of a coterminous village and township. If successful, services would have been transferred to and performed by the village six months later if the measure was approved by voters. The bill also called for a tax to be levied that would be designated to pay for social servicewould have allowed voters to decide whether to consolidate the village and the township. The village would have assumed oversight of all township assets, including the Community Center.
After the legislation was introduced, lobbying for and against passage was intense. During the winter, Village Administrator Eric Palm and Sloan met once to discuss collaboration; an effort to continue discussions prove unsuccessful. The issue was addressed during meetings of the village board of trustees. Then in March, lacing support in Springfield Welch tabled the bill, leaving the door open for it to come back during the fall veto session.
In April, the village suspended all efforts towards its adoption. During discussion of the issue, Village President Catherine Adduci, a supporter of the bill, noted if "residents want to pursue other avenues to ensure their voices are heard, they are encouraged to do so," according to the minutes of the April 15 meeting. She made similar remarks during her state of the village address in early May.
Despite those signals, village officials never publicly discussed placing an advisory question on the ballot.
River Forest's efforts would mirror those taken by Evanston, which was the first community with a coterminous township and municipality to merge. There, more than two-thirds of the voters in the March 2012 primary supported allowing officials to pursue dissolution. Legislation allowing merger and dissolution was adopted in the General Assembly last year. On March 18, nearly two-thirds of the voters elected to abolish Evanston Township.
The legislation did not have a shot at passage until after the advisory question had been approved, said state Sen. Dan Biss of Evanston, a chief sponsor of that bill.
Welch said that it was one of the issues he came up against with his bill and tabled it in hopes that River Forest voters would take the same action.
Welch said he would be "more than happy" to bring the measure back in November. If his effort proves successful, voters will come back and cast ballots on it during the spring 2015 consolidated election.
"I'm pleased to see residents taking advantage of the process and moving forward with an advisory referendum," Welch said. "This is something we should all watch closely."
Ironically, residents were gathering signatures around the time that the village and the township were planning to discuss collaboration on some administrative efforts. Palm and Sloan were to meet to continue looking at options. No meeting has yet been scheduled.
The petition drive and the village-township discussion are unrelated.
Neither the village nor the township can spend any public dollars to urge a voter to vote for or against any candidate or proposition. However, each entity would be in a position to provide factual background relating to a referendum that would help people make up their minds, said Kenneth Menzel, deputy general counsel of the State Board of Elections.