Transformer Awards Honor Good Government Across the State - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Transformer Awards Honor Good Government Across the State

Adam Slade

From (L) to (R): Local Transformer award winner Winnebago County Chairman Frank Haney, Ill. Rep. David McSweeney, Ill. Sen. Melinda Bush, and Moderator University of Chicago professor Paula Worthington, Ph.D.

“We will not change this climate unless we weigh in hard:" Nothing demonstrates the spirit of the 2018 Transformer Awards better than this declaration from award recipient and Winnebago County Chairman Frank Haney.

In Illinois, the state with the most units of government in the nation, this “climate” has been ignored for some time. High costs and segmented governments have been accepted as the status quo and something to work around. With rising pension payments and decreasing populations, some leaders are beginning to “weigh in hard” and address the barriers to progress within their governments.

  • State Transformer award winner: Ill. Sen. Melinda Bush
  • State Transformer award winner: Ill. Rep. David McSweeney
  • Local Transformer award winner: Winnebago County Chairman Frank Haney

On Thursday, October 11, the Transform Illinois coalition and its supporters gathered at the Gleacher Center for the 2018 Transformer Awards. The event honored State Senator Melinda Bush, State Representative David McSweeney and Winnebago County Chairman Frank Haney for their work in removing legislative barriers to efficiency and confronting ineffective practices within their own governments.

Transform Illinois is a collaborative of local elected officials, civic organizations and research institutions dedicated to promoting and supporting local government efficiency efforts in Illinois. Since its inception in 2014, the coalition has reduced barriers to consolidation and collaboration and created opportunities for municipalities to share ideas and amplify findings.

The three winners discussed their efforts in delivering more efficient services to their constituents as part of a panel moderated by Paula Worthington, Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.        

The panel began with discussion of two pieces of consolidation-enabling legislation that Transform Illinois has supported, Senate Bill 3 and House Bill 4637. Senate Bill 3 was co-sponsored by Senator Bush and signed into law in August 2017. Many of the consolidation techniques in this law have been circulating around Springfield for decades. In detailing how she crafted Senate Bill 3, she emphasized that she borrowed the components from previously rejected bills that had support, in order to make incremental progress toward removing barriers to local government efficiency.

“It’s important because it’s starting to allow local governments to remove some of the barriers to consolidation,” she explained about Senate Bill 3. “It allows for referendums to be put on the ballot. It allows for consolidation efforts to occur when two townships basically agree they should consolidate.”

She also highlighted the importance of advocacy from outside the government structure to encourage politicians to address the barriers to progress: “I think where Transform Illinois is so important is your lobbying efforts. I believe that this organization, and certainly the Metropolitan Planning Council, are really imporant in pushing consolidation efforts forward. Because politicians, frankly, we don’t want to tell other politicians what to do.”

Representative McSweeney sponsored House Bill 4637, which attempts to give local governments further consolidation powers. Expanding on Senate Bill 3, it enables individual townships to petition for a referendum on merging, rather than requiring the entire county to approve by vote. The bill passed overwhelmingly in the house, 80-22, and is currently waiting to be put to a vote in the state Senate.

Like Senator Bush, Representative McSweeney acknowledged that effective government can be impeded when politicians reject proposals that offer progress, but not perfection. For some politicians, he said, “It’s either all or nothing. I’d love to be able to pass consolidation tomorrow for all units of government. I know that’s not possible. You need to work on a bipartisan basis.”

Both these pieces of legislation have made great progress in local government’s ability to consolidate. However, Senator Bush recognizes that much of the hard work still lies ahead. She referred to Senate Bill 3 as “enabling legislation”. Now that the path has been cleared, it is up to residents and their government leadership to decide if and where consolidation is right for them. “Everyone talks about government consolidation,” she explained, “until it’s in front of them, and then it’s about protecting somebody’s ‘fiefdom’.”

The enabling legislation supported by the first two panelists removed state barriers for Chairman Frank Haney to confront some of the inefficiencies affecting his government. Chairman Haney discussed consolidating internal government departments and an ongoing effort to consolidate 911 services between Winnebago County and the City of Rockford. First, voters approved consolidating the county offices of the recorder of deeds and the clerk by nearly 70% of the vote. In 87 of the 102 Illinois counties, this consolidation had already occurred and the separate offices were a remnant of the 19th century political landscape.

Currently, Chairman Haney is leading another efficiency initiative in Winnebago County by trying to consolidate two separate 911 services. He summed up the effort simply: “We used to have one of something, then we got mad at each other and created two of something, and now we’re trying to put it back to one.” The focus of this consolidation is on delivering residents the best, sometimes life-saving, service. Unfortunately, because two different units of government have revenue, jobs, and services dependent on two separate 911 services, the issue is still unresolved.  “What I can tell you is the stakes are high, and you can make progress,” said Chairman Haney, as he conveyed hope for the future of local government. Despite the panelists coming from different political backgrounds and levels of government, there was consensus that consolidation efforts should proceed and the state should continue to remove barriers to making that happen.

The 2018 Transformer Awards celebrated the bipartisan communication of best practices, which is essential to building the capacities of our local governments. This is why MPC collaborates with Transform Illinois. 

Nick McFadden is an MPC Research Assistant and second-year MPP candidate at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy

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