Home Rule Debate: Editorial: Fight for home rule a losing battle

What’s the deal with Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey and the political action committee Empower Rockford teaming to have City Council members and staff listen to a home rule expert behind closed doors Dec. 21? Why wasn’t the public invited? The administration’s lame explanation that the meeting was an opportunity to educate staff in a more intimate setting is unacceptable.

I’m still not sold, one way or the other, on home rule itself, but I certainly am not sold on how Morrissey and Empower Rockford are trying to shove it down our throats. The peddling of home rule has evaporated a great amount of the trust I had in our new mayor, and I think a lot of voters feel the same way. For that reason, I would consider voting “No” if we get the chance to vote on home rule. After all, trust in our elected officials is what home rule power is all about.

Morrissey has said he would like to have home rule expert, retired Northern Illinois University Professor James Banovetz, come back and speak again Jan. 18, 2006. According to Banovetz, there are some communities, such as Chicago, you just cannot trust with home rule. I believe Rockford is just such a community, and the peddling of home rule serves as the perfect example of why we cannot trust local politicians.

While the independent views of Banovetz are useful, local home rule opponent John Gile has requested that he be able to speak at a future appearance by Banovetz, and that it be a debate format. If that request is denied, it would be a disappointment. If Morrissey and his supporters have confidence in home rule, they should have confidence in putting home rule up against one of its largest opponents. At the very least, I would hope any future appearances by Banovetz be open to the public. After all, we, the voters, are ultimately the ones who would decide whether we want to afford our city government home rule authority.

What I really dislike about the peddling of home rule is how Morrissey is holding hostage, in the name of home rule, the promises he made to voters in the 2005 election. He seems to be saying:

“Want high-speed rail in Rockford? Well, we need home rule to do that.”

“Want to do away with truancy? Well, we need home rule to do that.”

“Want to bring more jobs to the area? Well, we need home rule to do that.”

“Want to increase tourism? Well, we need home rule to do that.”

“Want to clean up all the crack houses in town? Well, we need home rule to do that.”

By the way, whatever happened to the dealing of crack, and other illegal drugs, being illegal? Can’t we just arrest those responsible for dealing the drugs? I don’t know why we need home rule to arrest people for doing something illegal.

I’m beginning to think the mayor won’t be able to address any subject without home rule. I don’t like how he’s holding hostage his agenda—the very things he said, and we as voters believed, would make Rockford a better place. And I also don’t like how the local daily in town, the Rockford Register Star, thinks there’s nothing wrong with making a $3,500 donation to Empower Rockford in 2004 and then waiting nearly a year to tell anyone about it (only after the contribution was outed in an Oct. 19-25, 2005, article in The Rock River Times). Why is everything in this community—and a great portion of the home rule peddling—happening behind closed doors?

The sad part behind all of this is, Larry Morrissey is a good person, someone who really cares about Rockford, and someone who’s very capable of making Rockford better. I think it’s the people around him—his campaign contributors and advisers—who are leading him down the wrong path. And just because we like him and supported him in the election does not mean he should be given a blank check to do with whatever he pleases. We voted for him to do certain things: bring us high-speed rail, help eliminate truancy, bring us more jobs, increase tourism, and get rid of illegal drugs, just to name a few. Despite whispers made behind closed campaign doors, home rule was not part of the bargain with voters.

Morrissey has little political experience. Outside of service organizations such as the River District, Morrissey previously had only run for one office (Rockford mayor in 2000), and came up short in his attempt. He made a strong showing in the 2000 election, strong enough to raise eyebrows. Many of those eyebrows were in the Republican Party, which may have seen in Morrissey—an Independent candidate—an opportunity to bring to an end the Democratic Party’s more than 30-year stronghold of the office of Mayor of Rockford. The crookedness behind home rule does not fit Morrissey’s nature, and one has to wonder where it’s coming from.

Regardless, Morrissey’s slogan in the fight for home rule authority should be the same as the World Champion Chicago White Sox’s slogan for the 2005 season: “Win, or die trying.”

When Morrissey was elected mayor April 5, 2005, by a margin of 54.89 percent (18,397 votes) to 40.90 percent (13,709 votes) over incumbent Democratic Mayor Doug Scott, and 54.89 percent to 4.08 percent (1,367 votes) over Republican candidate Gloria Cardenas Cudia, he brought with him a strong mandate for change. That mandate was afforded to him in what is referred to as “political capital.” He had a tremendous opportunity to spend that capital on the things voters elected him to fight for. Instead, he and his advisers have decided to spend that capital on fighting for home rule, while holding the promises he made to voters hostage.

Morrissey, a rookie mayor, asking for home rule during the first year of his first term in office is the equivalent of a rookie baseball player asking in his first at-bat for the league commissioner to bring in the fences to make it easier for him to hit a home run. The timing is wrong. Maybe if Morrissey had made a valiant effort during his first term to fight for the things voters elected him to fight for and was unable to get them accomplished because he needed home rule power, we may have been more receptive to the idea. Instead, he seems too afraid to take his cuts at the plate. Fear is not a good quality in a mayor. Take a few swings first, then come to us if the rules are truly unfair.

If home rule fails, Morrissey will have spent all of his political capital fighting for a cause voters did not elect him to fight for, and will be reduced to a one-term, lame-duck mayor. If the peddlers of home rule continue to sell home rule as they have been, voters will again be quacking for change when 2009 rolls around.

I hope Mayor Morrissey views this editorial not as an attack, but as a plea from the only newspaper in town that endorsed him in the 2005 election. A plea for him to change course, stop spinning his wheels on home rule, and start fighting for the things we, as his supporters, elected him to fight for. We want to see him win, and we view the fight for home rule as a losing battle, one he may have been set up to lose.

From the Dec. 28, 2005-Jan. 3, 2006, issue

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