Guest Column: Wants to understand home rule on a factual basis

I’m no expert on home rule, and I have no preconceived notions about its merits or advisability for Rockford. The only bias I have is a desire to understand the issue from a factual perspective. So far, however, coverage of the home rule debate in your paper and the Rockford Register Star has been mainly focused on the pro and con opinions of different individuals, with little, if any, hard data.

Coverage in both papers has improved of late, with more balanced articles and letters from the two sides, and less near-hysterical name-calling. Nevertheless, I am at a loss to understand why no one has seen fit to investigate germane statistics from James M. Banovetz’s NIU research on The Status of Illinois Home Rule. Since the Register Star has come out in favor of home rule for Rockford, and your paper has more or less aligned itself with the opposition, it seems logical that The Rock River Times is the most likely candidate for digging deeper into whatever hard data exists.

In the interest of emphasizing points I have raised previously with the Rockford Register Star and your paper, I am extracting from key paragraphs those statistics that deal specifically with Banovetz’s research on the percentage of Illinois cities that have adopted and retained home rule.

About 49-50 percent of cities that put home rule adoption to referenda vote failed to adopt it.

Between 13 and 16 percent of cities that had home rule retention elections failed to retain it.

Both of these facts are from Part I of Banovetz’s research paper, Home Rule Cities and The Voters (December 2002 / Illinois Municipal Review / Page 7), which I found on the Empower Rockford Web site, and was by inference cited as an example of their supporting evidence research.

Curiously, Banovetz does not address in his paper (Part I) why the cities that rejected either adoption or retention did so. He does say, however, that, “Understandably and appropriately, the mixed results of home rule adoption referenda indicate that voters considering the adoption of home rule are very skeptical about giving a broad grant of power, including tax power, to their municipal government.” If 49-50 percent of cities that put the matter to a vote decided to turn down home rule, there must be some reason or reasons for this. If between 13 and 16 percent of cities that had adopted home rule did not want to retain it, doesn’t anyone want to find out the specific reasons why?

I believe it is in the best interest of Rockford for both papers to remain neutral but factually oriented on this subject. A badly divided city on home rule could spell its retention rejection again, if the March referendum was to pass by a very slim margin—or for the wrong (political) reasons.

So, my question to you is this: Why don’t you do your usual fine job of investigative reporting and delve into the factual reasons behind Banovetz’s statistics? This would serve a more useful purpose than having proponents and opponents repeating their same old pro and con arguments. Moreover, it might even help us to resolve the issues that are preventing us from agreeing on this important matter.

Although my list of comparative statistics needed to clarify this debate is quite long, here are three crucial questions that are answerable only by factual data:

1. If Illinois’ home rule deserves the moniker “so-called” because, unlike “other” states’ versions, it denies local residents the right to create a local charter, exactly what states do allow this?

2. If we are to grasp why home rule is well liked by many communities, and feared by many people in Rockford, what is it about these communities that explains a relatively high level of trust in the former and a relatively low level of trust in the latter? A good place to start might be Normal, since retired NIU Professor James Banovetz (who says he has “no opinion” on home rule) has claimed that the Mitsubishi plant “would have never located there” without home rule (TRRT, Dec. 28-Jan. 3, 2005). To answer this question, I suggest you consider using newspaper “content analysis,” whereby the frequency of scandals, closed-door decisions, missed opportunities, failed plans, budget overruns and broken promises reported in the local news can be contrasted between the two cities as inputs to the trust equation.

3. Since three other cities voted to rescind home rule in the late ’70s and early ’80s, much like Rockford did in 1983, what are the underlying reasons for their decisions? Specifically, are Lisle, Lombard and Villa Park more like Rockford or Normal in terms of how much they trust their city leaders – and why? Newspaper content analysis might answer this question, too.

Finally, Wally Haas went on record in his op-ed of March 4, 2004, saying: “We haven’t had that level of trust for 22 years and counting.” Is this the fault of Rockford’s past and present leadership performance, or the hyperactive imagination of some overly paranoid citizens? I believe this is the ultimate question that ordinary citizens want answered in an objective manner. After all, if Mayor Morrissey has said that he wants to earn voters’ trust before asking them for home rule powers, has he done so, or is he showing signs of historic leadership failure? Is the City Council demonstrating clear thinking on the matter, as well? I must say, I am dubious of the critical thinking skills of three Council members who went on record in recent interviews as basically saying that they favored the democratic petition approach to putting a referendum on the ballot, but were supporting a bureaucratic Council resolution anyway (RRS, Dec. 30, 2005).

These questions demand factual answers. The Mayor and City Council also need to remember that trust, once broken, requires an extraordinary effort to be re-established—even though they were not the ones who may have broken the trust originally.

W. Harrison Goodenow is a Rockford resident and taught Total Quality Management and Applied Statistics at Rock Valley College for nine years.

From the Jan. 11-17, 2006, issue

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