October 18, 2018
The Civic Federation is a member of Transform Illinois, a coalition of organizations committed to greater government efficiency. Transform Illinois held its fourth annual Transformer Awards on Thursday, October 11, 2018, which honored three elected officials and one citizen for their work on government streamlining and collaboration. The award winners were:
- Senator Melinda Bush, representing areas of Lake County, who was recognized for her consolidation efforts at the State level. Senator Bush chairs the Senate Government Reform Committee and co-sponsored Senate Bill 3, township consolidation legislation that was signed into State law in August 2017 as Public Act 100-0107;
- Representative David McSweeney, representing areas of McHenry County, who was also recognized for his work at the State level. He advocates for property tax relief and government reform and has sponsored legislation that would lower the barriers to voter referenda for government dissolution;
- Winnebago County Chaiman Frank Haney, recognized for his work at the local level. Chairman Haney has pushed for consolidation, resource sharing and transparency through the Accountability/Collaboration/Transparency Initiative. Winnebago County is consolidating the Recorder’s Office with the County Clerk’s Office and putting a question on the November ballot on the consolidation of the Rockford Election Commission with the County; and
- Kenley Wade, who received the citizen award for his work as a member of the Citizens’ Efficiency Commission in Sangamon County and a public member of the editorial board of the Springfield State Journal-Register.
Senator Bush, Representative McSweeney and Chairman Haney spoke on a panel moderated by Professor Paula Worthington of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Kenley Wade was unable to attend.
The panel discussion centered on issues including government transparency, property taxes, consolidation and county public official professionalism. Panelists discussed the challenges of Illinois’ high property tax rates and the potential for consolidation to lead to lower property taxes for residents.
Senator Bush addressed the difficulty of passing consolidation legislation in the General Assembly. For example, she said, Lake County completed a study on the potential savings of merging township assessors’ offices into one centralized assessor’s office. The study found that Lake County could save nearly $5 million by merging the township assessors’ offices. However, when a bill was introduced, it died in committee.
On the county level, Winnebago County Chairman Frank Haney highlighted the lateral structure of counties with several separately elected officials and their own priorities. The panelists concurred that certain non-legislative, administrative positions should require professional certifications and be appointed rather than elected, such as county assessors, medical examiners, treasurers and sheriffs.
Panelists called for additional legislative tools allowing for consolidation of government entities. They highlighted some successes such as Senate Bill 3, which was signed into law as Public Act 100-0107 on August 14, 2017. Senate Bill 3 removed some barriers for township consolidation by allowing township boards to propose ballot measures to consolidate eligible townships and road districts, and allows all counties in the state to dissolve specified county governmental entities appointed by county boards.
Representative McSweeney suggested expanding on Senate Bill 3 to include consolidation authority for other governments, citing legislation he sponsored called the Citizens Empowerment Act. This legislation would have lowered the threshold citizens must meet in order to place referenda questions directly on a ballot.
A second panel moderated by the Better Government Association’s Madeleine Doubek discussed the role of media in effective government. The four-person panel included Mayor Richard Ervin of Aurora, Assistant Professor of Finance Dermot Murphy of the University of Illinois at Chicago Business School, Managing Editor Chris Fusco of the Chicago Sun-Times and Assistant Managing Editor Jake Griffin of the Daily Herald.
Professor Murphy presented findings from his research paper titled Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance. The study found a significant correlation between local newspaper closures and higher cost long-term bonds issued by governments. As the decline in newspaper circulation has worsened since the early 2000s, local governments in those same communities have issued higher cost long-term bonds, increased employee wages and number of employees, and instituted higher per capita taxes.
Although he acknowledged this research does not find explicit causation, Professor Murphy concluded that these increases in public borrowing and government inefficiencies are due in some part to these newspaper closures. These media outlets previously provided citizen oversight of government spending. Their absence weakens a government’s sense of accountability, he said.
The panel discussion continued the conversation on the role of local media in government accountability. Jake Griffin highlighted the importance of covering lesser recognized but important decision-making meetings such as planning commission and advisory board meetings, in addition to full board meetings. While governing board meetings tend to receive more media coverage, they are often the end of the line in the government decision-making process. Chris Fusco noted the shift away from hyper-local beat reporting amid declining newspaper resources. In closing he acknowledged the need for the public to embrace the shift from printed papers to online outlets.
The Civic Federation commends Transform Illinois for planning an informative and thought-provoking event and looks forward to continuing to collaborate on government reform efforts.