PRINCETON — The self-governing powers of home rule versus the potential abuse of home rule were on the front burner at Tuesday's community home rule forum.
About 150 people attended Tuesday's public forum hosted by the Bureau County Republican at the Bureau County Metro Center in Princeton. Panelists were James Banovetz, emeritus professor and director of Northern Illinois University's graduate program in public administration; Doug Williams, who has 36 years experience as a city manager in home rule communities; and Jerry Neumann, Princeton resident who has been an active researcher and leader in the Princeton Residents for Self-Reliance pro-home rule group.
In his opening comments, Banovetz said his purpose was not to tell people how to vote, but to share how home rule has been used in the last 30 years, the pros and cons of home rule, and how a community can protect itself against the abuse of home rule.
The primary use of home rule in Illinois is to promote local economic development, Banovetz said. The second most common use of home rule is to figure out ways to get non-residents to help support the local government, through the implementation of taxes on various products and services. Other primary uses are to reduce interest charges implemented on borrowed money, give a better control of regulatory activities, and to modernize and simplify government operations, he said.
With more than 300 past referendums in Illinois about home rule, whether to adopt, reject or abandon it, only four communities have thrown out home rule, Banovetz said.
In his comments to the audience, Williams said voters should look at home rule as a question of governments. Non-home rule communities can do only what is authorized by state law, which is a one-size-fits-all kind of thing, he said. With home rule, that approach is flipped, with the home rule community needing to look to the state only to see what is specifically prohibited. There is much more freedom for the home rule community, he said.
"Instead of Springfield telling you what to do, you decide what you want to do," Williams said.
Though economic development is a huge benefit to home rule, another big consideration is the fact that home rule gives greater flexibility to address local issues, Williams said. Home rule also provides greater protection against state mandates. Home rule is not an absolute against state mandates, but it does give a community greater flexibility.
Political power lies with home rule municipalities because more than 70 percent of the population are in home rule communities, Williams said.
Generally there are three arguments against home rule, and they are taxes, taxes and taxes, Williams said. A fourth argument would be more taxes, he added.
There is no question about it, under home rule, a council does have more options to raise revenue, Williams said, adding the question is whether the city council is fiscally responsible and if the community will continue to hold the council to be fiscally responsible.
In his experience, Williams said there is a daily interaction between council members and residents in a small community, like Princeton, which helps hold the council accountable to the citizens.
In summary, Williams said the two basic questions when considering home rule, are whether a community wants to govern itself and whether the community believes the city council will be fiscally responsible?
In his comments, Neumann gave a background to the home rule committee appointed last year by the Princeton City Council to study the pros and cons of home rule as an option for Princeton. Though he didn't know much about home rule in the beginning, Neumann said he learned a lot through the committee's research and became a supporter of home rule. He believes home rule can be a good thing for a community to help a community move forward, he said.
"It will give us the opportunity to move forward into the future, without putting the entire burden of the cost on the shoulders of the residents," Neumann said.
The opening statements were followed by about 45 minutes of questions from the audience.
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