At December’s Whiteside County Board meeting, just two constituents showed up. Everyone else who attended either belonged to the board or worked for the county.
That’s in a county of nearly 60,000 people. For tiny townships, boards can go years without members of the public showing up.
East Grove Township, population 256, is the third smallest of Lee County’s 22 townships. John Cruise, East Grove’s supervisor for 16 years, said constituents have attended one meeting in that time.
The township rarely drafts meeting agendas, although the state Open Meetings Act requires it.
In a December interview, Cruise said his township board didn’t usually post agendas because the only thing it normally does during meetings is approve and pay bills.
“Occasionally, we have to do other business, but nobody ever comes to meetings,” he said. “We put together an agenda if we have something in the works, but we’re in a very small township.”
In a January interview, he said the township had changed its ways.
“We’re posting agendas now,” he said. “In my time with the township, we’ve only had people come one time because there was a hog farm coming.”
Jerry Crabtree, associate director of the Township Officials of Illinois, said township boards must follow the Open Meetings Act, which limits secrecy in government.
“If they don’t have an agenda, the public access counselor [of the attorney general’s office] could come and fight the township for not complying with the law,” Crabtree said. “We would work with any township that is confused about that. We would provide them assistance.”
Brian Costin of the Chicago-based Illinois Policy Institute, a think tank, said the state needs to rethink townships.
“Townships are kind of like the forgotten government agency,” he said. “They are the least transparent.”
He noted very few have websites.
According to the Township Officials of Illinois, only three of Whiteside County’s 22 townships – Genesee, Hopkins and Sterling – are online. None of the Lee, Bureau and Carroll counties’ townships have sites. Three in Ogle County do.
Townships’ duties include maintaining roads, assessing property for tax purposes, and providing aid to the poor.
Nearly all townships belong to the Township Officials of Illinois.