Evanston’s aldermen, acting as the township board, voted Tuesday to put an advisory referendum on the March election ballot asking voters whether they think Evanston Township should be abolished.
The board backed away from a plan to hold a binding referendum to abolish the township after some members voiced fears that it would prompt costly lawsuits by people intent on preserving township government.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, proved to be the swing vote on the referendum issue, voting against a binding referendum, but in favor of an advisory one.
While no one said the advisory referendum approach would completely avoid the risk of a legal challenge, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl suggested that it would be difficult for a plaintiff to argue that the township board shouldn’t be free to ask its residents what they want the board to do.
And even an attorney for other townships who showed up to oppose the dissolution vote, Gregory Pelini of Champaign, Ill., suggested that the advisory referendum would raise fewer and presumably less costly issues to litigate.
Aldermen Don Wilson, 4th Ward, and Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, voted against both referendum options.
While they appeared to conceptually favor the idea that the city could perform township services at lower cost, they both focused on the potential legal expense of a challenge to a referendum, given what Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar described as the unsettled and contradictory status of state laws on the subject of township dissolution.
Aldermen Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, and Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, also voted against both referendum options. They indicated they weren’t convinced that abolishing the township would be a good idea.
At Wilson’s suggestion, the board also voted 6-3 to ask the state legislature to adopt a statute that would provide a clear path for voters in Evanston, and the handful of other townships around the state that have the same boundaries as municipalities, to decide whether their own township should be dissolved and its duties taken over by the municipality.
As it now stands, Farrar said, while the state constitution and election code appear to provide a path for a single township to be dissolved, the township code appears to require a county-wide vote to dissolve township government.
Aldermen Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, and Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, joined Braithwaite in voting against that proposal.
Tendam said he feared the issue would just get buried in Springfield. Burrus said “kicking the can” down the road to Springfield wasn’t the best solution. Both favored holding a binding referendum.
The board will meet again Dec. 5 to approve final language for the referendum question and the request for action by the legislature.
Top: The township office at Main Street and Dodge Avenue (file photo).