Fellow FPR columnist Dave Goetz stole my thunder last week. Goetz brought up an issue that, if the majority of Forest Park voters are smart, will be a central issue of the 2007 political season- Home Rule.
There comes a time when young folks need to move out of their parent’s house and start to make decisions for themselves. So too with municipal governments, but apparently voters here didn’t think that time had arrived in 2001, when they defeated a Home Rule referendum soundly. For whatever reasons- and I’m not saying they didn’t have reasons- voters didn’t see fit then to slip the shackles that the Illinois Legislature allowed larger communities to shed back in 1970 when it rewrote its Constitution.
It’s time for us to again consider, thoughtfully and rationally, with all the facts on the table, whether we want to assume the right to direct our affairs in this village- through our elected officials, of course- as we see fit. In the absence of Home Rule, towns like Forest Park must routinely go before the Illinois General Assembly and the Governor for approval on a host of issues, a process that can take months at best, and years in the worst cases.
My first reaction to Goetz’s suggestion that the Home Rule referendum be on the April, 2007 ballot was “Why wait so long?” After mulling it over, though, I agree with Goetz. Plenty of time should be taken to allow for educating the Forest Park voters about what Home Rule really is about.
As one long time village observer told me recently, most Forest Parkers are scared that if granted Home Rule powers, the current powers that be in this town will just dig deeper in tax payer’s pockets and lift out even more cash. That observer also said that, contrary to the current mayor’s professed willingness to look into changing the Commissioner form of government, it’ll never happen.
And there’s the rub. Too many people currently don’t trust our local elected officials to handle any additional powers wisely or fairly.
Back in 2001 only 2070 people voted on the Home Rule issue- 1283 against it, 792 for it. Amazingly, in the trustee race, 9,174 people voted for Anthony Luciano, the top vote getter in the race. In other words, over four times as many people voted for a single trustee as voted on the issue of Home Rule.
Back then, Anthony Calderone told the Review, “It is my opinion that the nay-sayers against this administration used their voices to speak against home rule.”
Actually, I think what they were saying was that they simply don’t trust the people they elect to have full control of the government. And that’s a sad statement on several levels.
A representative democracy is a system that calls for voters to look carefully at those running for elected office, assess whether they’re up to the job and whether you agree with their views. You then make a decision on election day, and live with the consequences until the next election.
Instead, we have a situation where some have no trust in government, and others have unwarranted absolute trust. The result is a deadlock in which we find ourselves stuck with two forms of government that are as outdated as buggy whips at a time when Forest Park needs to move forward strongly.
I think Calderone and his supporters have been both right and wrong in this whole controversy. After losing the 2001 Home Rule referendum vote, the mayor said of its opponents, “on a good day, (they) don’t know but 15 per cent of what Home Rule is about.” He couldn’t be more correct there. Opposition to Home Rule has, historically, been anchored by both a deep distrust of government and a fear of increased taxes. Of course, voters here can be forgiven for being less than thrilled at the prospect of giving freer reign to a mayor and majority board that has frequently shown a disquieting lack of respect for open democratic processes.
There’s also little reason to believe Calderone is serious about making any substantive changes except for those that directly increase his power. He’s stated in the past he’d willing to consider dropping the Commissioner format, but hasn’t bothered to follow through in any meaningful way for six years.
As the village’s own website states, the Commissioner form of governance is “a rare type of municipal government… which is represented in fewer than 25 municipalities in the State of Illinois.” That’s because most municipalities have the good sense to realize that elected officials, no matter how smart, don’t have the time or ability to be experts in the number of areas needed to run a modern municipality. The way that works best, most towns have found, is for a board to set policy, and for professional hired by that board to execute those policies.
An opportunity for education
In endorsing Home Rule, the Forest Park Review wrote in March of 2001, “If (elected officials) haven’t earned your trust, or you simply feel that allowing local governments more leeway on imposing taxes is always a bad thing, then you’ll vote against the measure.” Setting aside for a moment the issue of trusting the current village board, I have to say that Forest Park’s distrust of Home Rule in and of itself is misguided. There seems to be more fear and prejudice here, not informed, reasoned debate. Hopefully, any 2007 referendum- whether in April or November- will follow a long and well informed debate.
I’m currently researching both Home Rule and the Commissioner form of government, and I’ll be writing about them in this column sometime within the next three to four months, because I believe strongly that how we choose to manage ourselves really does matter.
In any event, you certainly won’t have to take my word for it. Over the next few months Forest Park voters will have the rather unique opportunity of being able to watch a neighboring municipality go through their own Home Rule referendum campaign. Last week River Forest Village Administrator Chuck Biondo produced a ten page briefing paper on the Home Rule issue to all trustees and the media. He also informed the board of trustees that he had, at their direction, scheduled three informational forums on the issue at the River Forest Community Center on Madison St. for Thursday, September 29, Wednesday, Oct. 26, Wednesday, Nov. 16.
Forest Park voters not only can read about those forums in the Wednesday Journal, they can follow the debate in that paper’s letter’s section. Between all that and the Internet, anyone who’s not informed about the pros and cons of Home Rule by next spring isn’t trying very hard to become informed.