3 Weeks Before Vote, Questions About Home Rule Remain (Part 1 of 6)
Home Rule in Northfield: An in-depth look in six parts into the history and effects of putting more power into Northfield leaders' hands.
This article is the first part of a six-piece series on the issue of home rule in Northfield, which will appear on the ballot Nov. 2.
When former Northfield Village President Donald Whiteman knocks on residents' doors and asks them if they're going to vote for home rule on Nov. 2, he said he generally gets one of three reactions:
"Yeah, I think I'm for it" (four in 10).
"I don't think I'm really for that" (one in 10).
"What is that?" (five in 10).
Whiteman belongs to a steering committee that is canvassing residents to support the ballot measure to bring more power to Northfield. Despite recent press and town hall meetings, many residents say they still don't know exactly what home rule is or how it would affect this village. At its core, home rule gives a village the ability to create any code or levy any tax that is not expressly prohibited in the Illinois Constitution or by directives from the state legislature. Put another way, non-home-ruled communities, like Northfield, can only do what is explicitly authorized by the state.
"Home rule gives this town the ability to do so much more for its residents in so many different ways," Whiteman said at a recent village-sponsored public forum on home rule. "Instead of being a minority all the time and getting dumped on by the state, it's time to go on the other side of the aisle and have more control over your life."
While he was board president, from 1997 to 2005, Whiteman said Northfield's relative economic health did not present a need for home rule in the village. But the debate began during John Birkinbine, Jr.'s term, 2005-2009.
As Birkinbine explained to residents in public letters in 2007, Northfield's cash reserves were decreasing, due to state-imposed but unfunded mandates; increased service costs; and a down-turning economy. Back then, two referenda to levy taxes to help pay for a broken water pipe and to cover salaries associated with Northfield's fire shift program were voted down. But, had Northfield been home-ruled, the tax levies would have been enforced without voter approval. At that point, the board began musing about trying to adopt home rule in the future.
And now that reserves are at the lowest the village has ever seen (board trustees have estimated all savings could be gone in six months), it's current Village President Fred Gougler's turn to try to introduce home rule to Northfield.
"Home rule will enhance our financial flexibility," Gougler recently told Winnetka-Glencoe Patch. "It will enable us to maintain our streets, our sewers and our sanitary systems – the basics."
The evidence of months and months of grueling study of home rule lies in Gougler's basement – on his pool table. Three giant binders stuffed with reports and analyses spell out two significant points the village board wants to make: 1) Northfield is running low on savings and 2) the best way to solve its financial gap is by becoming a home-ruled community.
At public meetings, several residents have met Gougler's home-rule talking points with skepticism, questioning why the town is in need of more money in the first place and wondering how far the six-person board of trustees and president will take its newfound taxing powers.
In a forthcoming series, Patch has scoured available studies on home rule in Illinois, taken a look at the village's finances, and spoken with officials in Northfield and neighboring towns to offer you a comprehensive look at what could happen if Northfield's trustees are given more power.
Part 1: A Brief Home Rule History
Part 2: The Power (and Limits) of Home Rule
Part 3: So How Bad Are Northfield's Finances?
Part 4: What Northfield Leader Are Proposing To Do With Home Rule
Part 5: Citizen Concerns