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New leader in Coloma; experts pan townships

With a new supervisor at the helm, troubled Coloma Township might be on the mend. But the continued need for township government in Illinois remains questionable, in light of two new research studies.

Published: Saturday, July 19, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

The appointment last week of former Rock Falls Mayor David Blanton as supervisor of Coloma Township should bode well for township residents.

Blanton has the experience in government and business necessary to improve the administration of township functions, some of which, under former Supervisor Debra Burke, were not performed satisfactorily.

Burke, who resigned May 14, became township supervisor in 1981 and served 33 years. Her final months in office were perhaps the most difficult, as it became widely known through Sauk Valley Media’s series “Under the radar: Many townships, little scrutiny,” that Burke had failed to perform a number of duties on time.

Those lapses included failing to publish annual financial statements when they were due, allowing significant errors in several financial statements, paying payroll taxes late, failure to have audits performed in a timely manner, and failure to submit financial reports to the state comptroller’s office.

The last deficiency prompted the comptroller’s office to levy a fine of more than $13,000 against the township, which later was negotiated down to $3,200 and paid by Burke herself.

Blanton, who will serve out Burke’s term until 2017, has his work cut out for him.

“I realize this is a big job, but when I asked myself if I wanted to come out of retirement, I said yes, because I believe I can help fix this,” he said last week.

“We’ll all sit down, learn the operations, and resolve our problems.”

Coloma Township’s problems have occurred during a time when questions are being raised about whether township government, which dates back to the 1850s, is really necessary in 21st-century Illinois.

In the 17 Illinois counties without township government, counties handle two of the three core responsibilities of townships: assessing property and providing assistance to the poor. Road districts handle the third duty of maintaining roads and bridges.

In the 85 Illinois counties with township government, townships get little scrutiny from taxpayers, who also must keep track of many other layers of government: cities, villages, school districts, park districts, fire protection districts, library districts, and county government itself.

The lack of public scrutiny can lead to trouble even worse than what happened in Coloma Township.

In Carroll County, the former Wysox Township treasurer, who also formerly managed the Milledgeville Community Credit Union, pleaded guilty in February to embezzlement from both the township and the credit union. Kim Kent, 53, was sentenced this month to 8 months in federal prison. Her total theft from both entities topped $200,000.

Two weeks ago, a former township supervisor in Kankakee County was indicted by a federal grand jury on a charge of stealing more than $60,000 from Pembroke Township. Leon Eddie Mondy, 35, faces one count of wire fraud.

Doubts about theneed for township government were expressed anew in May when experts on Illinois government weighed in through a study and a book.

The Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University produced a 16-page Policy Profile on the issue, “Too Many Governments in Illinois? What is the Impact on Townships?” The report supports the consolidation of townships. It is available online.

And in “Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State,” authors James D. Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson call for the elimination of the township form of government as one of their 98 suggestions on how to make the state work better. It is available from your favorite bookseller.

As Supervisor Blanton dives into the nuts and bolts of Coloma Township government, his approach – to sit down, learn the operations, and resolve problems – is a sound one.

People who take a similar approach toward township government in Illinois might come to the ever-growing conclusion that it is an anachronism that Illinoisans would be better off without.

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