Rockford aldermen vote down home rule resolution

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113701305627245.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jeff Havens’, ‘Ken Becker, Rockford resident and Realtor, makes his feelings known about the City Council vote on home rule at the Jan. 3 meeting. Becker and other home rule opponents held similar signs at the Jan. 9 City Council meeting.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113701312927239.jpg’, ‘Photo by Frank Schier’, ‘Peter Provenzano, Empower Rockford treasurer and Greater Rockford Airport Authority commissioner, answers media questions after the Jan. 9 home rule vote. Provenzano said Empower Rockford will continue its efforts to collect signatures to place the home rule question on the ballot for voters.’);

In what was likely one of the most debated City Council votes in Rockford history, aldermen voted 9-5 against placing the home rule question on the March 21 ballot by a city resolution rather than voter petition. The Jan. 9 votes came after more than one hour of discussion by 12 of the 14 aldermen, in which both supporters and opponents passionately stated their positions on the topic.

The action realistically means home rule supporters will have to gather at least 8,000 eligible voter signatures to put the home rule question on the ballot for the November general election.

According to home rule opponents, such as Rockford resident John Gile, the question focused on not just whether Rockford should return to home rule authority, but how that question should be placed on the ballot for voters.

Gile said placing the issue on the ballot by City resolution would set a “double standard”—one for ordinary citizens who have to collect thousands of voter signatures—and another for the “privileged class” that merely has to persuade seven aldermen to vote to put the question on the ballot.

He added that the political action committee behind the home rule movement, Empower Rockford, was composed of wealthy or politically well-connected attorneys, politicians, business leaders and residents. Ald. Dan Conness (D-14) said members of Empower Rockford were “common, everyday citizens.”

Supporters of home rule, such as Greater Rockford Airport Authority Commissioner and Empower Rockford Committee Treasurer Peter Provenzano, said placing the question on the ballot by City resolution was not only legal, but fair. Provenzano characterized results of the vote as “partisan,” since all eight Democrats voted for not placing the question on the ballot by resolution.

However, one Republican, Ald. Pat Curran (R-2), broke rank with his fellow party members by voting with Democrats.

Provenzano said results of the vote put “partisanship over community.”

Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) told WNIJ public radio that since the proposal was rejected, he expected aldermen to collect signatures to place the question on the November ballot.


Supporters of home rule argued the authority would give the City Council broad, new authority to address topics such as drug houses, economic development and high property taxes. Opponents argued home rule power would give aldermen too much authority to raise taxes and fees and seize private property at will, with little recourse for accountability other than elections.

The Illinois version of home rule is automatically granted to municipalities with populations of more than 25,000 people. Among other powers, home rule grants broad authority to elected officials to find revenue sources to fund projects and pay for goods and services.

Had Rockford placed the home rule question on the ballot by a City Council resolution, the action would have been a first in Illinois history.

From 1976 to 2001, the question of whether large municipalities should retain home rule power has been placed on the ballot 25 times. All of those questions were put before voters by citizens who gathered the required number of signatures on petitions, which translates into about 8,000 signatures, or 10 percent of the registered voters in Rockford.

Rockford is one of four Illinois communities that have rejected home rule authority. Rockford voters failed in 1978 to rescind home rule, but were successful in 1983. The other cities that rejected home rule were Lisle in 1977, Villa Park in 1980, and Lombard in 1981.

None of those four, large municipalities that rejected home rule has sought to return to that authority. The other 21 cities voted to retain their home rule authority.

Breaking rank

Despite Provenzano’s claim of a partisan vote, one Republican, Curran, voted with Democrats.

Curran said his vote was contingent upon whether his home rule property tax cap proposal could be imposed after home rule was approved by voters, and only be rescinded with a super majority or two-thirds City Council vote.

City Attorney Patrick Hayes said such a property tax and vote restriction was not binding, if home rule was approved. This meant if home rule was approved by voters at some future date, a simple majority of the City Council could vote to lift the property tax cap, and, in effect, nullify Curran’s restriction.

Curran then encouraged aldermen to vote against his proposal, and announced he would be voting for not placing the issue on the ballot by resolution.

Like the resolution vote, aldermen similarly voted 9-5 for not adopting Curran’s proposal, which included Curran, after he learned his property tax proposal could be lifted.


Despite his recommendation in a Codes and Regulations Committee vote last week to not recommend putting home rule on the ballot by resolution, Ald. Frank Beach (R-10) dramatically reversed his stand Monday evening. Beach is chairman of the Codes and Regulations Committee, which voted 3-2 Jan. 3 against putting the question on the ballot.

Beach gave a detailed speech about his position in which he expressed dissatisfaction with how the responsibility for placing the issue before voters was transferred from Empower Rockford to the City Council.

Beach complained: “I am disappointed in the way this has come to us.” He later added: “If we really want this, shouldn’t we just do it?”

When crunch time arrived, Beach voted against not placing the issue on the ballot in March for voters, which contradicted his Jan. 3 vote in his committee.

Translated, a “no” vote against the resolution meant aldermen were in favor of placing the issue on the March ballot.

Beach voted “no” on the issue, along with Republican Aldermen Joe Sosnowski (R-1), Doug Mark (R-3), Bill Timm (R-9), and John Beck (R-12).

Mark introduced the proposal to place the issue on the ballot by resolution. All eight Democrats supported the resolution, which opposed placing the question on the ballot.

Home rule support

Despite voting for the resolution, most aldermen expressed support for home rule. They made clear that placing the issue on the ballot was a separate question from whether they supported Rockford’s return to home rule authority.

When home rule was last on the ballot in Rockford in 1983, home rule opponents garnered approximately 10,800 signatures to put the question to voters. That effort was led by Gile, who argued home rule supporters should be subjected to the same petition-signature process to avoid the appearance of a double standard.

Gile’s argument appeared to hold weight in the aldermen’s decision to not support the home rule resolution.

Conness gave a long speech in which he expressed his desire to not give “non-home rule candidates” more “objections” to the initiative. Conness said he supported Rockford’s return to home rule authority, but preferred the question be put on the ballot by petition, not resolution.

Ald. Linda McNeely (D-13) arrived at a similar conclusion, but through a much different route that was based on her minority constituents’ view of the proceedings.

McNeely emphasized that: “It’s the process. It’s the way it was presented” that determined whether she and residents in her ward would be supportive of the resolution. McNeely represents a large number of black and Hispanic constituents.

She warned if the resolution was rejected, members of her ward may ask: “How could you let them do that?”

McNeely expressed support for home rule, but was dismayed about the rush to place the initiative on the ballot without time to properly educate the citizenry about the topic.

“Home rule is not a panacea [to city woes],” McNeely said.

Beck discounted McNeely’s assertion about not enough time to educate people before the March primary vote, by claiming there was ample time for such purposes. Beck then chastised the citizenry by lamenting that many eligible voters do not vote or participate in the democratic process. He concluded that it made

no difference to him whether the question was placed before the voters by petition or resolution; waiting until some later date would not address McNeely’s concerns about increasing the education level of voters.

Petition campaign

Gile and other home rule opponents criticized Empower Rockford for dropping the petition drive for the City Council resolution because that process was easier. Gile argued the home rule question should have grassroots support from the citizens and voters in the form of petition signatures.

Provenzano noted after the meetings that gathering signatures was “a very stressful process.” He also said he was “dismayed at the partisan nature” of the vote, and that results of the vote put “partisanship over community.”

As to the Empower Rockford petition campaign, Conness said he would be willing to personally collect 1,000 of the needed 8,000 voter signatures, if the group wants to place the question on the November ballot.

Provenzano complained that collecting petition signatures was “putting the effort into something rather than educating voters” about home rule authority.

Gile thanked The Rock River Times for providing an alternative voice for opponents of home rule.

“We had a major challenge in getting the word out,” Gile said.

The local daily newspaper, the Rockford Register Star, financially supported Empower Rockford by contributing $3,500 to the committee in late 2004.

Gile said he will continue to advocate changing the state constitution to allow for a local charter to be negotiated if and when home rule is granted to a municipality. He has been invited to speak at a gubernatorial forum next month on the topic.

From the Jan. 11-17, 2006, issue

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