McHenry County Board will ask Illinois legislature to repeal township law that only applies to McHenry County

County leaders say the law does not clearly outline how the county would take on township responsibilities

Pamela Althoff

The McHenry County Board will ask Illinois lawmakers to repeal a 2019 law that makes McHenry County the only one in Illinois where voters can dissolve a township through a referendum.

The County Board voted 19-2 on Dec. 21 to pass a resolution to be sent to the state legislators who represent parts of McHenry County asking them to repeal the law. County officials have said the current law has problems that need to be fixed and they don’t want to be the only county in the state where this is legal.

“I agree with the County Board,” state Rep. Suzanne Ness, D-Crystal Lake, said. “I was on the Board when this law was passed and it was one of the reasons I decided to run for the state legislature. It really was a bad piece of legislation. It’s not achieved whatever we thought it would achieve.”

The 2019 law was led by former state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, who argued voters should have the power to eliminate units of government if they see fit, which could help save them property tax dollars.

Officials, however, say the law does not do enough to address how the county would take over township responsibilities and are not convinced it will save taxpayers money because the county would still have to budget funds to take on township services.

“If you want to do something about townships, it’s always better to do the job right the first time than go back and clean up someone else’s mess,” state Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, said.

Both Reick and Ness said they were comfortable putting together legislation this spring to repeal the law.

Since the law was passed in 2019, several referendums have been put to the voters about dissolving townships or road districts, but all have failed.

The law also has been challenged in court by Nunda and McHenry township road districts, which argue that state law prohibits legislation from only applying to one county.

County leaders said the purpose of this resolution is to create a better law and fix problems with the law in the event voters did vote in favor of dissolving a township.

“This doesn’t change the process by which people can vote,” board member Carolyn Schofield, R-Crystal Lake, said. “This does not take anything away from voters and their abilities to put things on the ballot.”

Board members Michael Vijuk, D-Cary, and Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, were the lone votes against the resolution.

Those who have pushed for township consolidation have said they believe voters still need to have a voice.

“I have no problem with them asking to repeal that as long as they make it statewide,” said Bob Anderson, a former McHenry Township trustee who has supported dissolving the township.

Anderson said some of the reasons referendums to dissolve townships have not failed is because voters didn’t understand what they were voting on and the referendums appeared on ballots during primaries or consolidated elections and not during a high turnout presidential election.

“It’s very difficult to educate the public when you have such a complex situation,” Anderson said.

Ness agreed many voters might not truly know what it would mean to dissolve a township, but said the impact on services to residents by removing a unit of government needs to be considered.

“I think consolidation is something we will have to address down the road,” she said. “We have too many layers of government and it creates a lot of difficulties.”

However, she said she is not in favor of expanding the law statewide.

Referendums also are not the only way townships can be dissolved. Townships that share the same borders as a municipality can be dissolved by the General Assembly.

Whether the McHenry County Board gets its wish and has the law repealed also will be up to state lawmakers. The legislature returns to Springfield next week for its 2022 legislative session, which is scheduled to run until the middle of April. It’s not clear if a bill on the issue would move forward, however.

“I’ve talked with a couple of other legislators already because I’m curious what the best way to go about doing that,” Ness said. “My guess is unless I bring it up or another legislator brings it up, it probably wouldn’t come up.”

Ness said she isn’t sure how other state lawmakers would react to a bill that abolishes the 2019 law either, which was passed with votes for and against the bill from both sides of the aisle. She said she has not heard many people talking about township issues ahead of next session, either.

“Generally during election years, things like this don’t come up,” Reick said. “They’re pretty reserved about making people vote on bills that actually have an impact on people because they have an impact on polls in November.”