Empower Rockford to ‘stay the course’ in home rule battle

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11382202607077.jpg’, ”, ‘Peter Provenzano’);

Political action group joins with Home Rule Now!, begins ‘10-month marathon’ to get home rule on November ballot

Members of Empower Rockford, the Rockford City Council and area media appeared to take lightly the idea city officials may have violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act by holding a home rule seminar Dec. 21, 2005, that the public was not invited to attend.

Jim Keeling, Empower Rockford chairman and Hinshaw & Culbertson partner, kidded at a Jan. 18 rally at Memorial Hall that the rally was within the guidelines of “the Sunshine Laws.” The rally kicked off Empower Rockford’s push to collect signatures to put home rule on the November ballot. Keeling’s comment was met with muffled laughter from the audience of about 50, which included members of Empower Rockford, the Rockford City Council and area media.

Empower Rockford is a local political action group composed of community members devoted to restoring home rule power to the City of Rockford. Rockford operated as a home rule entity from 1970 until 1983, when home rule was voted down after opponents, led by local author and publisher John Gile, collected thousands of signatures to get the question on the ballot.

Keeling’s comment Jan. 18 was directed toward a Jan. 4-10, 2006, article in The Rock River Times in which Illinois Press Association (IPA) attorney Scott Sievers said a Dec. 21, 2005, home rule seminar for city staff and aldermen may have violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Sievers said it may have been a violation because the public was not invited to the seminar and a “majority of the quorum” of the City Council was present.

The City paid retired Northern Illinois University professor and home rule expert James Banovetz $300 to speak at the Dec. 21 seminar.

The Jan. 18 rally began Empower Rockford’s drive to collect the 8,000 signatures of eligible voters needed to put home rule on the November general election ballot. The rally came nine days after Rockford City Council voted 9-5 for a resolution to keep home rule off the March 21 primary ballot.

If Rockford had put home rule on the March ballot by resolution, the move would have been a first in Illinois history. Banovetz said at the Dec. 21, 2005, seminar that between 1976 and 2001, the issue of home rule for large municipalities was put on the ballot 25 times, each time by voter petition.

Keeling said Empower Rockford was disappointed the City Council did not put home rule on the primary ballot, but that the main goal of taking the issue to the City Council was “to get the dialogue going.” Keeling added Empower Rockford appreciated the efforts of Independent Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey and nine of 14 City Council members in supporting the concept of home rule.

Attending the Jan. 18 rally were City Council members Joe Sosnowski (R-1), Doug Mark (R-3) and Bill Timm (R-9), who all voted for putting home rule on the March ballot; and Carl Wasco (D-4), Jeff Holt (D-11), Dan Conness (D-14) and Victory Bell (D-5), who all voted against putting home rule on the March ballot.

Morrissey was unable to attend the rally, but supplied a letter of encouragement read by Keeling in which he thanked aldermen for their support and thanked Empower Rockford for “bringing the issue before the community.”

Empower Rockford will now team with the newly formed Home Rule Now!—a coalition of area businesses, organizations and volunteers committed to the issue of home rule—to get the 8,000 signatures needed to put the home rule issue on the November ballot. Keeling said the coalition is endorsed by Mid-Town District, Rockford Area Chamber of Commerce, Northern Illinois Building Contractors Association, Rockford Area Economic Development Council (RAEDC) and Rockford Park District.

Fritz Jacobi, publisher of the Rockford Register Star, is director at-large of RAEDC. The Register Star also made a $3,500 contribution to Empower Rockford in 2004.

Keeling said the coalition, which has raised $30,000 in pledges, would meet in late February to review progress, but would not begin much of the full campaign—including yard signs, mailings and educational seminars—until after the March 21 primary.

“It’s going to be expensive, but the resolve is there,” Keeling said of what he called Empower Rockford’s “10-month marathon” to put the issue to voters in November. “It’s going to be a good investment into the community.”

Keeling said Empower Rockford and Home Rule Now! planned to “stay the course” in the battle for home rule. He said the goal is to collect 12,000 signatures by Aug. 21, two days before petitions are to be on file with the Rockford Board of Election Commissioners. The hope is to have 8,000 of the 12,000 targeted signatures match signatures of registered City of Rockford voters. Only signatures by registered City of Rockford voters are valid signatures.

Peter Provenzano, Empower Rockford committee member and Greater Rockford Airport Authority commissioner, said more than 75 individuals have volunteered to circulate petitions. He added he expected a “costly campaign, close to the cost of the mayoral campaign.”

For comparison, in the 2005 mayoral race, Morrissey raised $514,459, while former Rockford Mayor Doug Scott (D) raised $316,838.

Provenzano said Empower Rockford offers a speakers’ bureau, composed of Empower Rockford members and City administrators, that is available to area organizations for educational purposes.

When asked whether there would be a public debate regarding home rule, Provenzano said, “It is really up to the individual organizations how they want to proceed,” meaning those organizations would determine the format of the forums or debates offered.

During the rally, Mark and Bell, who both brought the home rule issue to the City Council and who have been vocal proponents of home rule, were among the first aldermen to sign the petition. Aldermen Holt and Sosnowski also joined Mark, Bell, Keeling and Provenzano on stage during the press conference to sign the petition.

Empower Rockford and Home Rule Now!’s petition packet and pledge form includes the following list of “talking points” for petition volunteers to use:

“Signing the petition merely demonstrates support of putting this important issue on the November 2006 ballot. It does not mean that the signer is for or against Home Rule.”

“Home Rule Government empowers locally elected officials to tackle problems in the most appropriate fashion. In 1983, Rockford gave up this ability, and now we have to ask Springfield to grant us the authority to implement solutions. Home Rule gives power to our people and our locally elected officials.”

“This is a City of Rockford issue. Some voters say they are against Home Rule because they are dissatisfied with the amount of taxes they pay (for example) for the new county jail, or School District #205, or Rockford Park District. These other government agencies and their taxing authority are not affected by Home Rule.”

“173 municipalities in Illinois have Home Rule. Four municipalities have rejected Home Rule (Lisle, Lombard, Villa Park, and Rockford); Rockford was the last to reject Home Rule (1983).”

“In a 30-year assessment of Home Rule in Illinois, the Center for Government Studies, Northern Illinois University, concluded: ‘…there is no economic data that supports the contention that property taxes necessarily or even usually increase faster in home rule communities than in non-home rule communities.’”

“The banking industry recognizes the flexibility Home Rule provides for municipal governments as an advantage. This is reflected in the ratings they assign for bonds. By not having Home Rule, Rockford’s bond ratings have suffered, resulting in our paying approximately $5 million more for bonds since 1983.”

After volunteers have completed the petition signature process, they are required to get the petitions notarized. The petition packet advises: “Notary service may be obtained at any AMCORE Bank, Alpine Bank or Rockford Bank & Trust office. Once notarized, you may leave the petition form at t

he bank office, and they will be forwarded to the Empower Rockford Committee.” Completed petitions are to be submitted April 21, May 22, June 19 and July 17.

Those interested in more information about Empower Rockford, Home Rule Now! and the petition effort can contact Empower Rockford at 997-1610 or visit www.homerulenow.com.

What is home rule?

The issue of home rule has sparked intense controversy since it first arose in fall 2005. With all sides of the issue putting their own spin on the topic, many voters have said they are confused about what home rule really means.

According to the 1996 “Home Rule and Local Government in Illinois: A Citizen’s Guide,” prepared by the Citizen Advocacy Center, a nonpartisan organization based in Elmhurst, “Home rule is best defined as placing at the local level the power to tax and to regulate with broad discretion any function pertaining to government and local affairs.”

The Citizen’s Guide also explained: “In addition to powers explicitly given to them by the state legislature, the constitution gives a home rule unit inherent power over any function ‘pertaining to its government and affairs, including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt.’ No subject is ‘off limits’ to local authorities unless the General Assembly specifically restricts it. …

“Illinois courts have said that home rule units of government, because of their inherent power over local affairs, may regulate: cigarette taxes, taxes on retail sales of new motor vehicles, parking taxes, reductions in mandatory fire and police retirement age, land dedications for schools and parks, zoning landfill sites, mobile home parks, low-income housing developments, and self-service gas,” the Citizen’s Guide continued. “Illinois courts have ruled that the inherent powers of local government do not include the power to regulate health ordinances that conflict with Environmental Protection Agency regulations, noise regulations, branch banking regulations, and the disposition of unclaimed property, nor reduction of officials’ salaries or discrimination based on personal appearance. In some of these areas, the state legislature may be able to delegate its power to local government, but without state action, home rule units can not regulate in these areas. Finally, courts have ruled that there are some areas where the state’s power to regulate cannot be passed along to the local unit even if the state wants to delegate these powers. For example, for public policy reasons, matters involving divorce and family law, real property, trusts and contracts must be regulated by the state and cannot vary from one municipality to the next.”

Following are some online resources for those interested in more information about home rule in Illinois:

The full text of the Citizen’s Guide is available at http://www.citizenadvocacycenter.org/HOMERULE96.htm;

Article VII of the Constitution of the State of Illinois, which affords home rule power, is viewable at http://www.ilga.gov/commission/lrb/con7.htm;

The University of Illinois Extension, including links to reports about home rule, is available at http://web.extension.uiuc.edu/mclean/factsheets.ced22.html;

The Illinois Department of Revenue provides information about the “Home Rule Sales Tax,” available online at http://www.revenue.state.il.us/LocalGovernment/Overview/HowDisbursed/homerule.htm;

The Illinois Municipal League provides a list of municipalities, their home rule status and their population at http://www.iml.org/dbs/imllegal/dyncat.cfm?catid=1225;

Empower Rockford offers its views of home rule, including text of speeches and information about their speakers’ bureau, at www.homerulenow.com; and

Home rule opponent and local author and publisher John Gile offers his views of home rule at www.fixhomerule.com.

Those without Internet access can contact the following:

The Citizen Advocacy Center, 238 N. York Rd., Elmhurst, IL 60126-0420, by phone at 630/833-4080 or by fax at 630/833-4083;

Empower Rockford, 120 W. State St., Suite 300, Rockford, IL 61101, by phone at 815/997-1610 or by fax at 815/997-5010; or

John Gile, 1710 N. Main St., Rockford, IL 61103, by phone at 815/968-6601.

From the Jan. 25-31, 2006, issue

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