When Lake County voters cast ballots on April 6 to select people responsible for overseeing those charged with keeping their communities safe, educating their children, collecting their garbage, running their parks, and operating their libraries, only 14% of them cast ballots.
Five months earlier, 69.37% of the county’s registered voters voiced their choice for president of the United States, their United States senator, and member of the House of Representatives, all of whom have a far less direct impact on their daily lives.
Of the 345 offices elected by voters in different parts of Lake County, 98 were contested, 220 were uncontested and 27 had fewer candidates seeking the office than spots open on the respective board, according to county records.
“It’s discouraging people don’t come out to vote in local elections even though the people they elect have a direct impact on their day-to-day lives,” Sandy Hart, the Lake County Board chair, said. “They really impact people’s lives.”
“There’s always better turnout in a national election,” added Mark Shaw, the chairman of the Lake County Republican Party. “This is another election so close to November. Voters may be politically weary if you will.”
Since municipal, township, school district, library district, and even Park District boundaries can overlap, local elections pose a unique set of challenges. Lake County Clerk Robin O’Connor said overlapping boundaries between governmental entities require more than 1,000 ballot styles.
“From an administrative and cost standpoint, less would always be easier,” O’Connor said. “Each election has its own dynamic.”
County voters had a chance to reduce two countywide offices into one in November, voting overwhelmingly to consolidate the responsibilities of the clerk and recorder under the clerk’s supervision, as 68.28% said yes and 31.72% opposed the measure.
Lake County Recorder Mary Ellen Vanderventer, whose current job will no longer exist come December of next year, persuaded the County Board to put the referendum on the ballot last summer. It had been discussed for approximately 10 years.
Hart said the county is continually looking for ways to eliminate taxing bodies as it did with the Beach Park Drainage District earlier this year and the Lake Bluff Mosquito Abatement District. Since they are not operated by elected officials, the communities involved can make the decision. A referendum is necessary to end an elected governmental entity.
While Waukegan, Gurnee, North Chicago, and many other communities in the area have park districts operating recreational facilities, in Antioch and Lake Forest the municipalities oversee those activities.
Lake Forest Mayor George Pandaleon said the arrangement works well for the city. It also operates its own library, fire department and cemetery, eliminating the need for districts to oversee those functions. He said the efficiencies benefit the taxpayers.
“It’s one of the reasons our tax rate is the lowest around,” Pandaleon said. “Our parks are a community treasure, especially the beach. They’re run by a department head, just like public works. We appoint the library board and approve its (property tax) levy.”
Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham said consolidation of the Park District into the city government is a possibility, as long as it does not impact the current basic services of police and fire protection, along with public works. Schools should remain separate.
“It is something that could be done, but it would be a huge undertaking for the municipality,” Cunningham said of the parks. “If a school district is run successfully, the city should not be a part of it.”
In Waukegan, there is one school district for all children from preschool through high school, while next door in Gurnee there are three for the same group of children. Lake County Board member Dick Barr of Round Lake Beach said consolidating school districts is a possible place to start reducing governmental bodies.
Barr said the idea of a countywide school district should be examined. Not only would it consolidate the county’s 45 school districts into one, it would eliminate some of the inequities which exist in educational quality.
“It will really help the low-performing schools,” he said. “Some districts spend much more per student than others. We should look at how to consolidate them. It will save millions of dollars in administrative costs.”
Educationally, there are benefits to school consolidation, particularly where several elementary districts feed into one high school. Brian Harris, the superintendent of Barrington Community Unit School District 220 with preschool through high school, said it is good for students.
“It means we’re guiding a kid’s curriculum from the time they are 3 or 5 until they are seniors in high school,” Harris said. “We are looking at 13 years of a kid’s curriculum, and can be sure there are no gaps.”
Mike Lubelfeld, the superintendent of North Shore School District 112 which operates the elementary schools in Highland Park and Highwood, said he agrees with Harris’ academic assessment and sees potential benefit to consolidating elementary schools feeding into one high school district.
“Reducing the number of administrative units can have academic efficiency that can reach the taxpayers,” he said. “The longer I do this, I see the consolidation and collective bargaining interacting. The two go hand-in-hand and if it is going to get to the taxpayer level.”
The need for both townships and municipalities has long been a question which has been debated. Everyone in the county lives in a township, but not everyone lives in a city or village. Shaw said when townships were established, the area was more rural and basic needs were met by the broader township government. That is changing.
Barr said eliminating services is not part of the answer but combining some of them, like library districts near each other, is a possibility. He suggested exploring the possibility of letting townships handle libraries and parks.
“There’s not an easy solution,” Barr said.
Vanderventer said eliminating governmental entities which may not be necessary has its own set of challenges, because there are those who have a vested interest whether it is in the townships, park districts or schools.
“It takes courage to step up and suggest change,” Vanderventer said. “It’s a start, and you have to start somewhere,” she added, referring to the consolidation of the clerk and recorder offices.