Home rule debate: Guest Column: Home rule powers advocated at City Council Meeting

Comments by James H. Powers presented to Rockford City Council Dec. 5.

Thank you, Mayor Morrissey. My name is Jim Powers.

In 1983, I was still serving on active duty in the Army and did not participate in our home rule decision. I have reviewed media archives in an effort to understand what took place then, why it took place, and what is happening now. Clearly, anger and despair influenced the public mood in 1983:

Our unemployment rate was one of the highest in the country.

Two weeks before voting on the home rule referendum, the unemployment benefits of 1,000 Rockford residents expired. Thereafter, 200 more were added to this list every week.

Property taxes and municipal debt were on the rise.

It was the type of environment wherein people look for a villain.

For some, it was as if our community was on fire, and someone rallied forces to break the glass on the fire alarm and sprinkler system.

Today—22 years later—when we discuss options to determine our future destiny—including home rule powers—many argue convincingly that we should not turn off the sprinkler system.

They believe the fire will start again if we turn off the sprinkler system.

Some valid arguments can be made that the action taken in 1983 did not solve the problem. But for many, it felt like it solved the problem, and our present efforts to provide Rockford with tools for self-determination take place in the shadow of 1983’s passions. Many who lived through those times behave in a manner that might appear irrational, just as many citizens of Bulgaria, with painful memories of life under communism, wince at the prospect of joining the European Union in 2007. Such fears are valid, and, as a community, we must deal with them. But those who would exploit those fears to further their own agenda cannot be allowed to prevail.

Although I favor home rule, my agenda does not include convincing those with a “1983 mindset” that they should think like me. My agenda is to place objective and unbiased information before all, so that our residents can look at it and make up their own minds. I look at my role as one of “enabling” rather than one of “convincing.”

Enabling is also your role. You must facilitate the process of community dialogue and consideration of this important issue. Part of that enabling process is for you to place this issue, as a referendum item, on the March 21, 2006, ballot. By doing that, you are not, as has been suggested, acting as puppets. Instead, you are demonstrating that you possess the courage to do your job.

When Sen. Barack Obama made his stirring presentation to the 2004 Democratic convention, he mentioned a demonizing, name-calling practice, among some African-Americans, called “acting white.” The “acting white” process is a type of “communal tyranny”—harnessing fear, group-think shortsightedness, and name-calling. With our current efforts to re-examine the home rule issue, we have already experienced far too much name-calling and attempts to exploit fear. I believe we will see more. Communal tyranny must be kept at bay during this important community process. Our journey must be calm and reasoned. Do not cave in to communal tyranny! I am confident that you will demonstrate possession of the courage to do what is right for our community!

Thank you for your consideration!

Jim Powers is a member of the City of Rockford Police and Fire Commission.

From the Dec. 14-20, 2005, issue

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