Guest Column: Home rule would give Rockford politicians free rein

Once again, local politicians and special interest groups are agitating for so-called “home rule” powers at City Hall. “Home rule” calls to mind a story about Abe Lincoln talking politics with old friends from Illinois who visited him at the White House.

Lincoln wanted to make a point about words and asked his friends, “How many legs would a dog have if you called a tail a leg?”

“Five,” they answered.

“No,” Lincoln said, “the dog would still have only four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

Lincoln might make the same point to those who call stripping citizens of control over their local government “home rule.” Their so-called “home rule” would give Rockford politicians free rein to tax and spend and impose regulations—without asking the citizens for permission.

The Illinois version of so-called “home rule” is a legacy of Chicago’s first Mayor Daley. The amended Illinois State Constitution of 1970 that created home rule powers was written under his direction and reflects his lust for power. That’s why the Illinois version of so-called “home rule” gives politicians virtually unlimited power to tax, to regulate, and to incur debt.

Rockford citizens voted to take back control over their local government by repealing home rule in a 1983 referendum, imposing restraints on city government activities and forcing the City Council to ask for permission to levy taxes.

Because Illinois home rule prohibits creation of city charters or local constitutions in which citizens could specify what home rule powers they want local politicians to have and what powers they do not want them to have, no compromise providing us with the best of both worlds is available today.

Allowing that compromise would require a constitutional amendment such as: “Nothing in this Constitution or its home rule provisions shall be construed as to constrain or prohibit citizens of home rule communities or communities eligible to become home rule communities from creating by referendum a community charter or constitution in which the citizens of the community define and restrict the powers and procedures of their home rule governing body. Those powers and procedures include defining and restricting the power to tax, to regulate, and to incur debt, specifying what decisions and actions their elected representatives may exercise by virtue of holding office and which decisions and actions must be presented to the community for approval and ratification in a referendum open to all eligible voters in the community. Such local charter or constitution shall govern in any conflict with home rule provisions or other sections of the Illinois Constitution.”

Until such an amendment is passed, so-called “home rule” in Illinois leaves citizens at the mercy of local government and encourages abuse by concentrating power in the hands of a small group of politicians. It is much easier for community exploiters and profiteers to fool or manipulate a small group of politicians than it is to fool or manipulate the whole community.

Rockford citizens have generously supported tax referendums since repealing “home rule,” including the recent jail tax, which provides ample resources for law enforcement to clean up gang graffiti problems and crack down on crack houses.

Other community problems preoccupying public-spirited citizens are symptoms of poor leadership so-called “home rule” cannot cure. Boarded-up houses and blighted areas stem largely from unrestricted urban sprawl fostered by local politicians who allow developers to pour concrete and blacktop on acre after acre of precious farmland. Little or no regard is given to the environment, the needs of future generations, or for the costly strain on city and school district resources caused by this urban sprawl. So-called “home rule” cannot cure avarice or bad judgment, but the unrestricted power it gives local politicians can make the consequences even more devastating.

“Home rule” is certainly a misnomer because it takes away our power to control our local government. The Winnebago Country Taxpayers’ Association is fighting any return to so-called “home rule” in Rockford. So is a new group called Citizens for Government of the People, by the People, and for the People who want to fix “home rule” in Illinois. Lincoln would like that.

John Gile is a local author and publisher.

From the Oct. 12-18, 2005, issue

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