Questions of home rule not answered

Rockford Register Star columnist Ed Wells has been using his space to call for the City of Rockford to, regardless of means, become an Illinois home rule unit of government once again. Under the 1970 Illinois constitution, home rule units of government are granted broad and—from what I’ve been able to learn—virtually unregulated powers.

When the new constitution went into effect in 1971, every Illinois municipality with a population of 25,000 or more became a home rule unit. Home rule can be adopted by any municipality by referendum or taken away in the same manner. Rockford lost its home rule status 20 years ago by referendum through a citizen initiative. DeKalb and Freeport are currently the area’s only home rule units.

Mr. Wells has been critical of Mayor Doug Scott for not being a stronger proponent of home rule. The columnist called the mayor’s recent State of the City address “gutless” and went on to assert that for the mayor to “discuss the future of Rockford without mentioning the significance of home rule makes the State of the City speech meaningless chatter.”

There are so many positives to home rule, according to Mr. Wells, that time should not be wasted on a citizen initiative or a city council resolution for referendum. State statute, the columnist suggests, should be changed to automatically give Rockford home rule status. Never mind the fact that many current Rockford citizens have no idea what home rule is or what the Rockford City Council would do with the new authority.

In defense of Mayor Scott, in the limited correspondence I’ve had with the mayor regarding home rule, he has said he would “love” for Rockford to have home rule authority. However, because home rule could profoundly alter the way the City of Rockford conducts its business beyond his administration, Mayor Scott also realizes that the entire city, from Mid-Town merchants to west-side community activists, deserve to have a say on the issue.

Living and writing in Freeport as I do, I am very familiar with home rule authority. What I have found to be the largest frustration with home authority is the seeming inability of local and state leaders to provide concrete answers to pertinent citizen questions. Since early this year, I have been asking why the City of Freeport is not bound by Article Five of the Illinois Local Library Act. According to this section of the Illinois Compiled Statutes, issuing bonds for library construction is only possible after a successful referendum. However, the City of Freeport recently issued $2 million in general obligation bonds for library construction without a referendum while also avoiding other stipulations required by Article Five.

Although I sent a registered letter to Stephenson County State’s Attorney Mike Bald regarding this issue on March 11, long before the bonds were approved, I have not received any type of answer. The same silent treatment came courtesy of my state representative, Jim Sacia, R-Pecatonica. Because the City of Freeport Codified Ordinances say we depend upon the Illinois Local Library Act for library governance, I’ve asked all the Freeport City Council members why they don’t have to follow their own ordinances. Not a single answer from this group, either.

Because the City of Freeport is home rule, they were also able to avoid holding a public hearing prior to approving the bond issue, effectively silencing any public questions. Why the General Assembly continues to allow home rule units of government to avoid compliance with the Illinois Bond Notification Act is a question unto itself.

When recent questions were raised about the level of compensation for Freeport’s library director, citizens were told the city council does not control such things as we are bound by Article Four of the Illinois Local Library Act.

Why does home rule authority allow for the circumvention of Article Five of the Local Library Act but not Article Four? And why haven’t any of the numerous officials I’ve contacted even attempted an explanation of this simple question? It should not be rocket science.

Before any more of Rockford’s journalists tout the benefits of home rule, I would like some of these questions answered. Unless, of course, they believe thinking Illinois citizens do not have the right to know and understand the laws which govern taxation.

John Cook is a resident of Freeport.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!