Guest Commentary: Time to abolish township government

Guest Commentary: Time to abolish township government

By DAN McCOLLUM

The Illinois General Assembly in the mid-19th century thought that it might be helpful, in this then largely rural state, to offer, below the county, a more immediate level of government, hence townships. That was a time when it was more than a day's trip for those who lived more distant from county seat to get there, do business and return in a day, given poor roads, and horse-drawn buggies being what they were. Under this system, the voters in each township elect a supervisor, an assessor, a road commissioner and a board of auditors.

Few changes in the system have occurred over the century and a half that has passed since townships were created. In the 1920s, the establishment of "coterminous" city townships for Champaign and Urbana (Cunningham) were created, adding to the 28 already present in the county.

For townships to have survived into the 20th century is a testament to the inability of the Illinois General Assembly to get with the times. All of the townships except the City of Champaign and Cunningham (urban) townships, have all of the officials mentioned above. The two cities take care of the streets and roads, having no need for road commissioners, and the city councils function as the auditors.

In the county, there are county highways and township roads. The latter remain the responsibility of the townships, administered by locally elected officials, not necessarily with the best qualifications; the richer the township with greater resources, the better the roads. Would not it make sense for the county to do the whole job with countywide standards?

As for the supervisors, who no longer serve as the county legislature, they are left to prepare the budget for the township and administer "emergency" welfare, each with their own standards. Danielle Chynoweth's case for her job would make much sense also administered at the county level, should it be deemed essential as well. Thirty such people scattered about the county, each with their own standards, is neither efficient nor consistent.

Now, Cunningham Township is confronted with the impossible situation with the election of a totally dysfunctional assessor. The job is critical, charged with the determination of assessments for taxes on real property. The recently elected assessor, with no experience in the job, and having fired the two employees who did have experience, leaves the office literally functionless until the next election, four four years from now! Were he a county employee, he could be promptly terminated and replaced by a person who could handle the position.

Who rises to defend the township system? As the offices are partisan, both political parties fight to defend their office holders. Also, the township lobby in Springfield, where its "professional" staff can focus on the narrow issues of this 19th-century horse and buggy system, is quick to render its help. Over the years, pressure from this interest has made it nearly impossible for the voters, in a countywide referendum to rid itself of townships.

At present, not only would such an initiative need to win in a countywide vote, it would need to win a majority of over half of the individual townships as well. Twice in recent years, the executive director of the township organization has defended townships in the letters to the editor of The News-Gazette.

Not to be overlooked is the emotional appeal of Cunningham Township supervisor Danielle Chynoweth. After all, it's her job. But the survival of townships in Illinois materially contributes to why this state leads the nation in the number of local governmental taxing bodies, more than New York, California, Texas, etc. No wonder the average voter and taxpayer finds the situation confusing. The General Assembly should address the shortcomings in local government and simply abolish the township government as part of a simple and sensible reform.

Dan McCollum is the former mayor of Champaign.

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