Belleville Township Board battles over trustee seat

News-DemocratJune 19, 2013 

— Members of a politically divided Belleville Township Board have different ideas on who should immediately fill a vacant trustee seat, and in the big picture, whether the township form of government should even exist.

Township Clerk Dallas Cook, an independent, broke a tie vote Tuesday to appoint Ralph Hult, an independent, to the position once held by the late Paul Klingler.

Klingler, of the Belleville Good Government party, died of illness in May after he was re-elected in April.

But the township's attorney, Brian Flynn, informed township officials Wednesday that the board's decision is void because Hult is ineligible for the position.

Township code requires the new trustee to be a member of the same political party as the person who leaves the position.

This means the appointee could be someone who has held office as a Good Government party member or signed a candidacy petition for a candidate from that party.

If the board doesn't choose a new trustee in 60 days, then voters can pick a new trustee regardless of party affiliation.

"I don't believe that in local government anyone should have a party affiliation," Cook said of his vote to appoint Hult, who is married to Belleville Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult. "Everyone should be independent."

Cook said he hopes to get around the township code by proposing a resident who used to be a Good Government party supporter.

Cook said at the next Belleville Township meeting on July 2, independent members plan to recommend Donna Mauno, a former Belleville alderwoman.

On Tuesday, board members first considered former trustee Mary McHugh for the position. McHugh ran with the Good Government party and lost in the April election.

Township Supervisor Dennis Korte Sr. said Tuesday's township meeting that McHugh should fill the vacancy because she got the next highest number of votes in the April 9 election. Korte declined further comment Wednesday.

On the vote to appoint McHugh, Korte and Trustee Joyce Laux voted "yes." Trustees Joy Schreiber and Joe Swierczek voted "no." Township Clerk Dallas Cook broke the tie vote with a "no" vote.

"At the meeting, I opposed Mrs. McHugh for the simple reason that we have experience on the Board with Korte and Laux and I believe that it is time for them to take this opportunity to train a new generation," Schreiber stated in a Wednesday email.

After the McHugh recommendation failed, Hult was approved with a 3-2 vote. Korte and Laux voted "no."

Korte and Laux are part of the Good Government party.

Schreiber, Swierczek and Cook are independents.

Before the April 9 election, all the seats on the township board were filled by members of the Good Government party.

Townships needed?

Cook said he plans to take the shift in the township board as an opportunity to research how to eliminate township government altogether.

The city of Belleville and Belleville Township share the same boundaries.

"It's absolutely overkill," Cook said. "It's wasteful. It's a way to create more government jobs."

The clerk elected to the city of Belleville also serves as clerk for the township, so Cook holds both positions. Also, Flynn serves as an assistant city attorney for Belleville but was separately appointed to the township post.

Cook proposes eliminating the township and providing general services out of the city's clerk office.

The township has about a $750,000 budget this year, which includes the property taxes it collects and money in savings, according to Cook.

Jerry Crabtree, associate director and education coordinator of Township Officials of Illinois, a lobbying group in Springfield, said the elimination of township government in areas such as Belleville would be detrimental to residents.

There are 1,432 townships in the state and the three primary functions of townships are property assessment, road and bridge maintenance and general assistance, according to Crabtree.

Township government is the government that is closest to the people, and in areas such as Belleville, townships provide funds for food banks, senior ride programs and youth services, Crabtree said.

In 2007, Korte told the News-Democrat that 67 percent, or $424,200, of the township's $692,300 budget went to the poor and elderly, community programs and a full-time case worker dedicated to residents seeking help.

Cook said more money would go to residents if taxpayers didn't have to pay for a township building, salary for the supervisor and clerical staff, and compensation for trustees, the attorney and others, Cook said.

The city has the staff to take over township services, and the city already maintain the roads and bridges. With the township tax eliminated, the city could raise taxes just enough to continue providing services to help residents that need assistance, Cook said.

Cook said he hopes to build momentum to eliminate townships in St. Clair County.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said Cook is not the first to question the future of township governments. Eckert said he and others in the Good Government party continue to have conversations about changes to townships and the impact on residents who depend on townships for services.

State legislation to discontinue townships across the state has failed.

Monroe and Randolph counties do not have townships, but the majority of counties in Illinois do.

To put a referendum on the ballot to ask voters about discontinuing Belleville Township, the petition must include at least 10 percent of the registered voters of each township in St. Clair County.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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