An executive order issued on April 7 by Gov. J.B. Pritzker as part of the state’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic will delay one of its the oldest democratic gatherings – the annual meeting of township electors.
By law, every township in the state was required to hold its 2020 annual meeting no earlier than 6 p.m. on either April 14 or April 21.
Riverside Township was slated to hold that meeting on April 14 at 6:01 p.m. But, with the state’s stay-at-home order and a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people in place through at least the end of the month, that exercise in democracy will have to wait.
Riverside Township Supervisor Vera Wilt said she wasn’t sure when the annual meeting would take place.
“The suspension will last as long as the general order,” Wilt said. “We know it won’t happen before May 1, and we all suspect it’s going to last longer than that.”
The annual meeting of the township’s electors – defined in the Illinois Township Code as any registered voter within the township – is typically not a very well attended or long affair. In Riverside Township, it’s typically held immediately before a regularly scheduled township board of trustees meeting.
According to Wilt, about 15 to 20 people show up for the annual event, and they tend to be “regulars” – elected and retired officials, relatives, curious neighbors. Because it’s a township meeting and not municipal, electors in Riverside Township might come from parts of Riverside, North Riverside, Brookfield and even Riverside Lawn.
Before municipal boundaries were drawn and incorporated – Riverside became a village in 1875, Brookfield in 1893 and North Riverside not until 1923 – the annual township meeting was a more important venue for deciding local matters.
“It’s the original and truly only direct democracy we still have in township government,” said Wilt.
The agenda is brief, consisting of the election of a meeting moderator (who takes an oath of office), approval of the minutes from the last year’s meeting, township reports and setting the date for the following year’s meeting.
There also is room for discussion of new business, and in Riverside Township that’s where it can get interesting.
Anyone who does a little organizing beforehand can make sure enough electors show up to push and approve a favored cause, which in Riverside Township often takes the form of an advisory referendum on the next ballot.
“It’s easier to get through a small petition to put something on the agenda and vote to get something on the ballot,” said Wilt.
Of course, the results of such referenda are not binding and in Riverside Township’s case cross municipal boundaries, so they’re not necessarily good indications of village-wide interest.
In the past, the referenda placed on the ballot through the township annual meeting have been larger-than-local political questions, sometimes on the political fringes. In 2006, township electors voted to place a question on the ballot asking for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Sixty-two percent of those who voted that November favored the troop withdrawal.
In 2008, meanwhile, electors delivered two referendum questions. One asked whether Riverside Township voters favored seceding from Cook County (they didn’t) and the other asked whether township voters favored phasing out nuclear power in Illinois (they did).
More recently, in 2018, there was a motion and a second to get a climate change referendum on the ballot. The resolution was defeated by a 14-8 margin after some back and forth over illegible signatures and petition information that didn’t match voting rolls. The minutes also noted there was a typo in the resolution, which misstated the date as 2016.
Wilt said the township annual meeting is more important for larger townships. The purchase or sale of land by a township, for example, can only be approved at an annual meeting.
Riverside Township doesn’t own any land – not even the land on which the township hall stands. The land is owned by the village of Riverside.
The township, on the other hand, does own a bridge. So if anyone would like to buy the Swinging Bridge, the township meeting would be the place to make your offer.