Forum sees debate on City Council referendum
By Hank Beckman For The Sun February 12, 2013 10:57PM
Approved Naperville City Council Districts. | Mike Solley ~ Sun-Times Media Source: City of Naperville
Updated: March 16, 2013 6:13AM
“Shall the City of Naperville elect City Council at large instead of part of the council at large and part from districts.”
It’s a question both on the ballot of the April 9 municipal election and on the minds of many in Naperville these days.
About 50 people turned out for a Naperville Area Homeowners forum on the ballot initiative that is now scheduled for the April ballot, but is being challenged by a group that feels the matter was settled by a 2010 referendum.
“What’s missing from this dais is the 28,000 people,” who voted for the district system in 2010, Ed Rivas said in his opening statement in favor of the move to the new system.
But Dean Reschke, co-founder of the Yes at Large citizens group that wants all council members to remain being elected at large, feels the move is a radical departure from the way Naperville has always operated.
“We just don’t feel something as fundamental as how we govern ourselves should be an experiment,” he said.
The decision to switch to the new system is the result of a November 2010 referendum that saw 28,236 Naperville residents vote to make the change against 14,593 that wanted to retain the all at large system.
The new system, if it ever gets implemented, will have five City Council members elected from districts and three at large, along with the mayor.
The move to the new system proved to be unworkable for the 2013 election, so a DuPage judge ordered that the new system be in place no later than the 2015 municipal elections.
Yes, at Large formed in 2012 to put its own question on the ballot about retaining the at large system, and the battle was joined.
Rivas is a member of the Naperville Voter Education League, an organization that takes no position on the matter. But Rivas is adamant that the time has come for the city to change. And he is particularly motivated by the lopsided nature of the vote in favor of moving to the new system.
“I could understand the justification for putting it on the 2013 ballot if it was close,” he said. “But this wasn’t close.”
Rivas also reasoned that the same 2010 referendum approved term limits for council members, and wondered why Yes, at Large didn’t want a new referendum on that issue as well.
“They’re being very selective,” he said.
Rivas also pointed out the high turnout in the southern portion of the city in favor of the new system in 2010, saying that the city was not the same place in which he and Reschke had grown up.
Rivas said that the move to the new system would encourage participation by not only helping to lower the cost to run for council, but also by allowing citizens in each district have a single council person they can go to for help.
But Reschke had his own reasons why retaining the at large system would be best for Naperville.
“I’ve been scratching my head about that question from the get- go,” he said in response to an audience question asking what was wrong with the current at-large system. “It”s a solution in search of a problem.”
Reschke has several concerns about the new system, among them that the districts will create factionalism on the council and result in the horse-trading that goes along with so many big-city machines.
“I see Naperville as a whole,” he said, “Any citizen gets to vote for all nine (council) members.”
Reschke said some studies show more conflict and increased divisions in towns governed by districts.
At one point he invoked the words that inspire so much dread in so many taxpayers when he said that the change, “inevitably means higher taxes in a ward system.”
But Rivas produced his own studies showing the opposite.
One question from the audience was about the possibility of illegal activity on the part of council members during election campaigns.
Neither panelist thought that it was a real possibility.
With some reports that council candidates had spent as much as $30,000 to get elected to council, another question dealt with campaign finance. Reschke said he thought that solving the problem of campaign spending by moving to a new system was like, “killing a mosquito with a shotgun.”
Rivas said that campaign finance reform was “probably a separate issue” from the method of electing council members.
Another question was about the possibility of council members having offices in their districts. Rivas said it was up to the council members to figure that out. Reschke said it wouldn’t surprise him, but both were opposed to the city funding the offices.
One audience member asked about the possibility of candidates only having to appeal to a small group and the rise of party and interest group politics.
Reschke said it was a concern of his, but Rivas countered that no research existed to show that a district system facilitated increased party affiliation.
Kamala Martinez is a south Naperville resident that said she thought both sides made good arguments, but admitted that one aspect of the district system appealed to her.
“At least the south side would always have two representatives,” she said.