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Why your vote did not actually shrink the size of the Rock Island County board

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The referendum voters passed, to reduce the size of the Rock Island County Board, had less power than many realized at the time of the election.

In the November 2012 General Election, voters in Rock Island County passed a referendum which asked, “Shall Rock Island County elect 15 county board members from 3 districts with 5 member [sic] each?” The unofficial vote count was 9,276 yes to 4,958 no votes, passing the referendum.

Questions followed when, after the election, the Rock Island County Board was not reduced from 25 to 15 members as passed in the referendum.

In a letter to Rock Island County State’s Attorney John McGehee, dated August 7, 2014, Illinois Senior Assistant Attorney General Lynn Patton said Illinois law (passed in the early 1970s) only allowed changes to the makeup of a county board to happen every ten years, to coincide with results from the federal census.

The measure approved by voters was an “advisory referendum,” Patton’s letter said, and the changes approved in the vote were subject to that every-ten-years restriction. If voters had approved a change to the way board members were elected, and not just to the number of members, an exception to the every-ten-years rule may have applied.

The advisory referendum passed in November 2012 is, Patton said, not legally binding.

“(L)ocal questions of public policy are ‘advisory public questions, and no legal effects shall result from the adoption or rejection of such propositions,’” Patton said in her letter citing state law.

Bottom line, the county board can implement the mandate passed by voters regarding the size of the board, but they are not mandated to implement that mandate.

“The advisory referendum merely allows the county’s residents to communicate their preferences to the county board,” Patton’s letter said. “An advisory referendum does not authorize the Rock Island County Board to take any action in contravention of existing law, as set out in subsection 2-3002(a).”