McHenry County Board asks state lawmakers to change township law

McHenry County is the only county in Illinois where voters can vote to dissolve a township

State Rep. Martin McLaughlin, R-Barrington Hills

McHenry County is currently the only county in Illinois where voters are allowed to vote to dissolve a township, but McHenry County Board members say the law has too many problems and needs changes.

Meeting Tuesday with each of the state lawmakers who represent parts of McHenry County, the County Board’s law and government committee asked the county’s lawmakers to change a law that allows only McHenry County voters to eliminate townships.

“We’d like to get our hands around either being free of this legislation or being a part of this legislation administered statewide,” said board member Jeff Thorsen, R-Crystal Lake.

The county wants lawmakers to take one of two courses of action on the law: either eliminate the law, so county voters can no longer vote to dissolve a township, or extend the law to all of Illinois’ other 101 counties.

No townships have been successfully dissolved by voters since the law was passed in 2019, but the constitutionality of the law has been the subject of lawsuits filed by Nunda and McHenry township road districts and several issues with the law were identified by County Board members.

The road districts argue state law prohibits legislation from only applying to a single county.

Board members said the law does not clarify how the county should absorb a township when it is dissolved.

If a new law is passed that continues to permit voters to vote to dissolve a township, board members said it should address how the county will take on a township’s assets, contracts and tax revenue, along with other township responsibilities that are required by law.

State Rep. Tom Weber, R-Fox Lake

“The state has put us in a very precarious situation because not only are we trying to invent how we’re going to design this product or this shadow of what the township used to be to implement the absorption of it, there might be legal issues that occur,” Thorsen said.

The 2019 law was led by former state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, who argued in favor of allowing voters to choose to eliminate or consolidate units of government.

The bill received mix reviews from members of both parties at the time, narrowly passing the Illinois House by three votes. Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, was one of the lawmakers who did not support McSweeney’s bill.

“I fail to see how we are going to save money by moving government functions which will not be done away with simply because the unit of government has been done away with,” Reick said

He said townships are the closest level of government to people and it could be more expensive for other units of government to take on the responsibilities.

Referendums to consolidate townships have been on the ballot in some McHenry County townships recently, but none passed. Voters in 2020 voted overwhelmingly against the Nunda and McHenry townships, and voters in April voted against abolishing the McHenry Township Road District.

Had any passed, the county would have been required to absorb the responsibilities of those governments.

A bill was filed earlier this spring that would allow voters in all counties to vote to dissolve townships, but made no clarifications as to how to absorb a township. The bill failed in committee. State Reps. Suzanne Ness, D-Crystal Lake, and Tom Weber, R-Fox Lake, both voted against it.

“[If] you’re going to make some fundamental changes to this, get some feedback. Come to McHenry County, find out why it’s not good legislation,” Ness said.

Ness said she does not support expanding the law to all Illinois counties.

“It was poorly thought out and poorly executed, and it’s going to be another mess unless you fix it, unless you repeal it or unless you apply it to everybody,” said board member Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry.

Thorsen said many people in county government were not aware of McSweeney’s bill until after it passed. State records show board members Jim Kearns, R-Huntley; Kelli Wegener, D-Crystal Lake; Lori Parrish, R-Crystal Lake; and Mike Skala, R-Huntley, all filled witness slips in opposition of McSweeney’s bill after it had already passed the House in 2019.

Pamela Althoff

County Board members have not yet decided which direction they want to ask lawmakers to take on the issue, but made it clear Tuesday they do not want to be the only county where voters can dissolve a township at the ballot box.

The county’s state lawmakers appear to be ready to lend support to either direction the board chooses.

“That kind of bill or amendment is going to have to come as a strong statement from McHenry County,” Reick said. “I’ll hold it up on the floor of the House and in committee and file all the amendments you want.”

The county’s Republican lawmakers said it will take some work to get changes to the House and Senate floor. They said support from Democrats will be needed to pass any legislation the board wants.

The spring 2022 General Assembly session is scheduled to wrap up in April next year, earlier than normal. Sen. Craig Wilcox, R-McHenry, said he doesn’t expect township issues coming up next year, especially proposals that might be controversial, ahead of the June primaries.