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Out Here: 'Townships need to resharpen pencils'

Published: Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013 6:23 p.m. CDT

Townships feel under assault. That's obvious.

Last year at a conference in Springfield, a law firm offered a session titled, "Townships in Crisis Mode: What Can be Done."

The goal of the presentation was to "discuss methods to keep township government a strong and relevant form of government in Illinois." An outline of that presentation is on the website of Township Officials of Illinois.

You don't see debates about whether cities and counties are relevant, but this is a longstanding issue with townships, which frequently ward off legislative efforts to put them out of existence.

Townships have three basic functions: maintain roads, assess the value of properties for tax purposes, and provide emergency assistance to the poor.

Last year's presentation listed "attacks by the General Assembly" and "attacks by taxpayers" as problems.

The taxpayer attacks were "caused by a lack of understanding about the functions of townships" and "caused by a frustration over current economic conditions."

The presentation listed the Open the Books and state comptroller websites as taxpayer attacks on townships.

Openthebooks.com, which is run by a nonprofit group, includes information on what employees make at all levels of government.

The state comptroller's site includes the financial reports from thousands of government entities in Illinois.

In referring to openthebooks.com, the presentation says, "Transparencymania! Everything is out there."

Because the two sites are listed under "attacks by taxpayers," the presentation makes transparency seem like a bad thing.

I called Bob Porter, who is the special projects director for the Ancel Glink law firm in Chicago, which advises townships.

A former township official himself, Porter said transparency is good, but townships should know that the public can access their information much easier now.

"They need to be aware that nothing is in the closet anymore. Government is a more transparent business," he said. "Some taxpayers will use this information to attack an agency without knowing all of the facts."

Why do townships seem like the only level of government constantly arguing for their relevance?

That's because townships need to fight off complacency, Porter said. Often, he said, township officials have been in their jobs for decades and do things the same way they've always been done.

"Townships need to keep resharpening their pencils," Porter said. "If you're not on the Internet, you need to be."

David Giuliani is a news editor for Sauk Valley Media. You can reach him at dgiuliani@saukvalley or 800-798-4085, ext. 525. Follow him on twitter: @DGiuliani_SVM.

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