Constitutional Convention delegates gave home rule power to local officials


The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

Now that Homewood is about to decide whether to become a home rule unit by referendum, I’ve been asked to write about how municipal home rule came about in Illinois at the 1969-1970 Constitutional Convention.
  Ann Lousin
The Illinois courts used to hold that local governments had only those powers granted by the constitution or by the legislature.  By 1969, it became clear that many governments, especially large cities, were suffering from this restriction.  Chicago was the epitome. In 1913 Chicago could not license peanut vendors on Navy Pier because the legislature did not authorize peanut vendor licensing.  In the 1960’s Chicago had to ask the legislature for permission to change the color of the revolving lights on police cars.  
Mayor Richard J. Daley desperately wanted the state constitution to give Chicago strong home rule powers.  As the 1969-1970 Constitutional Convention developed, other cities insisted that they also needed home rule powers.
The questions were first, which cities should automatically get home rule status, and second, how strong should the home rule powers be.  The convention debated the issues back and forth.  It became clear that the powers would be strong — the Chicago delegates made sure of that.  So which cities should automatically get home rule and should other cities be able to opt into home rule status by referendum?
The debate on the population threshold for home rule status went back and forth.  One delegate from Southern Illinois who was mayor of a city of about 10,000 claimed that small cities could not handle home rule powers.  These cities, it was said, had relatively simple problems, and they did not normally have professional legal counsel to advise them on home rule issues.  Other delegates maintained that all of the 1,200 or so cities in Illinois should be treated equally. 
At that time, as now, there were some very small cities.  The smallest was Bone Gap in Edwards County, with a 1970 population of 150 people.  In 2018, there are several cities even smaller than that.  They have a hard time finding people to run for mayor.
Eventually the convention hit upon “more than 25,000” as the population threshold.  On the effective date of the constitution, July 1, 1971, about 71 cities automatically became home rule units.  In 2018, approximately 200 cities are home rule units, mostly because they have increased in population, but sometimes because their residents have voted to become home rule units.
Other cities, the largest being Rockford, have opted out of home rule status by referendum.  The chief reason for opting out seems to be that residents see home rule status as a way to find new taxation. Of course, if the residents want new services, they have to tolerate increased rates on current taxes, especially in property taxes.
One reason some smaller municipalities want home rule is found in the intergovernmental cooperation provision of the constitution.  Local governments may “cooperate” with each other through contracts called “intergovernmental cooperation agreements.”  However, all of the governments in the contract must have the power to perform that function independently before they can make a contract to “cooperate.”  If it were otherwise, a non-home rule city could “bootstrap” itself by cooperating with a home rule city. 
Take, for example, the 911 calling systems. They are created and regulated by state statutes because some small non-home rule cities wanted to cooperate with each other and with home rule cities.  Absent a state statute, a little non-home city could not perform this function.  The suburbs of Chicago are replete with the 911 networks, an example of local governments working with each other.
And that’s the point of all of this debate, isn’t it—how can Illinois cities best perform functions to help their residents.

Ann Lousin is a professor at The John Marshall Law School.  She was a research assistant at The Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1970 and later worked for the Illinois House of Representatives, including a term as Parliamentarian of the House.  Her book “The Illinois State Constitution: a Reference Guide” is available from Oxford University Press.

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