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Should Springfield change its form of government?

Is democracy the cure for democracy’s ills?

Illinois Times  October 7, 1977

Springfield by 1977 had been run under the commission form of government for sixty-six years and was one of eighty-odd Illinois cities that still used it. To a growing number of its citizens, government-by-commissioners was inefficient, unrepresentative, and unrespon­sive. A coalition of change-minded people worked to put the question of city government to a test to learn via referendum whether the people of Springfield agree with the reformers that a change of government would be a good thing for Springfield.


That referendum was held and failed. The commission government was abandoned in time, but only under pressure by the federal courts that had ruled it denied African American citizens full participation.


There is in the Capital City a small group of people who want to change the way Springfield governs itself. They call themselves Citizens for Represen­tative Government (CRG). They are a varied lot whose otherwise divergent interests touch at only a single point—their common dissatisfaction with the city's commission government. Springfield is run by five persons elected on an at-large, nonpartisan basis who serve collectively as the city's legislative body and individually as administrators of the five major city departments.


“I was amazed when I moved here that Springfield still had the commission form." The speaker is Carol Lingenfelter, one of the people who make up the CRG. "It meant that I didn't have an alderman I could go to with my problems the way I was used to. City government felt farther away from me because of that."


Lingenfelter is a housewife in her thirties, an active member of the League of Women Voters who lives with her family in a comfortable west side neighborhood. She moved to Springfield from Ann Arbor, Michigan, several years ago. She chaired the local government committee of the league when it reviewed its position on the change-of-government issue last fall. She was also the first chairperson of the CRG, before it was the CRG.


Two earlier attempts to put the change-of-govern­ment question on the ballot failed—the first was in August of 1976, the second four months later. The Springfield East Association, the newly organized Community Democratic Group, and SSU's Center for the Study of Middle-size Cities were joined by unaffiliated indi­viduals like Phyllis Murphy, who is a former chairwoman of the Springfield and Sangamon County Regional Plan­ning Commission. All were either talking, planning, petitioning, or teaching about a change of govern­ment through the early months of 1977. The need to coordinate the efforts of the scattered anti-commis­sion factions was obvious.


In July a handful of activists gathered in a rented conference room in a downtown savings and loan office. The purpose of the meeting, organized by Lingenfelter, was "to try to work out something that everybody could support." The people there included union members, businessmen, lawyers, and others Lingenfelter describes as "just citizens."


The group unanimously agreed there was a need for a change. On the more complicated question of what to change to, the feeling was less clear. Some favored a strong mayor government, others argued for a council-manager form. (The third alternative, the weak-mayor system, was never seriously considered.) Gradually, over a half-dozen meetings, a compromise was hammered out—partisan elec­tions? should the mayor be a "ribbon-cutter" or should he have more substantial duties? what type of government would the voters most likely support?—issue by issue.


An agreement was reached by mid-September. The council-manager form was the alternative preferred by most of the group. Though it is not required, it was thought best to divide the city into ten wards. Two part-time, unpaid aldermen would be elected from each ward on a nonpartisan basis and would, along with a mayor, make up the twenty-one-person city council. The council in turn would make policy and would hire a full-time city council. The council in turn would make policy and would hire a full-time city manager who would hire administrators to manage city departments. Its authors felt the proposal would make for a city government that was professional, representative, and, they hoped, saleable to the electorate.


There were other questions. For example, when should the question be put to a test? All agreed it must be done before the next city election in April of 1979. Should the vote to change succeed, the present city council would need plenty of time to work out the details of the transition, but it was just as important not to rush, to allow time to plan a campaign and educate the voters. Fund raising, publicity—there would be much to do. The group did not even have a name (it did not get one until September 29). But it had officers—Ron Maksym and John Horrighs, co-charimen; Alice Kaige, secretary; and Kim Funk, treasurer—and the beginnings of a plan.


Ron Maksym is a lawyer, the Maksym half of Leahy & Maksym, a tall, graying man of craggy good looks. He has lived in Springfield for three years, in a house in one of the new exclusive residential developments that ring Springfield on the west side. He talks from across a wide desk. "I have two reasons for working with the group. One, I think representative government is a better government. The commission form suits smaller cities where the population is largely homogeneous. It doesn’t work so well when a city gets as large as Springfield. When people are elected on an at-large basis in a larger city, they’re strangers. When that happens, you have to divide the city, break up that large city-wide constituency into smaller constituencies. The way it is now, people don’t have to mingle with their constituency. They don’t get feedback from them. They’re not made to feel accountable."


Maksym answers the phone—his secretary is out shopping—then resumes. "The second reason is this: Under the commission form you have five people, each heading his own department. Each performs a different function. They become oriented toward that one function and develop a bias. Any time a commissioner has to legislate, he tends to legislate in favor of his function."


Maksym offers an example. "Take Mr. James Dunham [Springfield’s finance commissioner]. It’s possible—this is a fictional case, of course—that he’s unnecessarily conservative on the financial issue because he’s the one who has to make the city’s books balance. He was elected to keep the city in the black, so if someone else wants money—if, say, James Henneberry [public property commissioner] wants to make an improvement at the power plant—Dunham is almost automatically put into conflict with him.


Maksym is eager to make it clear that he doesn’t think a switch to a council-manager government is a cure all for Springfield’s problems. "You can have good, representational commission government. You can have a lousy aldermanic government. You could even have a monarchy and enjoy good, stable government—depending, of course, on the monarch. lt's just that a more representative form gives you the better chance for good government. There’s no guarantee."


One of the first things the CRG did was to name a subcommittee to draft a statement of philosophy. "We decided to avoid fancy wording and stick with three simple principles that we would expect any new government to live up to," Lingenfelter explains. "First, it would have to be geographically representative of all the people." Critics of commission government often point out that, in the last twenty-five years, only one of the council members has lived on the city’s east side and only a few more than that on the north; the rest lived on the west side.


Whether this proves bias is debatable. What is clear is that many people feel that the interests of the east and north sides—which tend to be poorer, older, and blacker than the west side—are not adequately represented at city hall. One who does is Kimble Funk. He was born and raised in Springfield, to which he returned more than three years ago after an absence of some twenty years. He did some of the publicity work for Project CHOICE (Citizens Hearings on Improved Community Effectiveness) a recent voter education project by which the Springfield East Association, using funds from an Illinois Humanities Council grant, tried to explain the governmental alternatives available to Springfieldians. In the process he learned "more about city government than I ever wanted to know."


To Funk, the lack of representation for neighborhoods is reason enough to abandon the commission government. "As an eastsider, it doesn’t take much to see that some sections of the city are better represented. My interest in changing the form of government is to increase the base of representation. A change to an aldermanic council is the best way I know to make that possible."


Funk, like many of the reformers, sees merit in both the strong-mayor and the council-manager forms—both of which may be organized on an aldermanic basis. "I liked the ‘return-to-the-people’ thing," he says. Critics often argue that the at-large elections required under the commission form makes it impossible for minority populations within the city to influence any but the closest elections. The commission form has sometimes been used to effectively disenfranchise minority voters. Cairo, Illinois is one place that has happened. Some think Springfield is another.


The second principle put down by the CRG subcommittee reads as follows: "Government should be efficient and effective." Lingenfelter gives an example of what she considers the inefficiency of city government, commission—style. "We had an alley cleanup behind our block recently. As you can imagine, we accumulated quite a pile of stuff. We called streets Commissioner Frank Madonia to have it hauled away. They came out but they said the street department only picks up tree branches. No rubbish. Rubbish is the health department's job. So we called health and public safety Commissioner Pat Ward and he sent somebody out to pick up the rubbish. It was a typical runaround. Two departments with similar equipment to do similar jobs. The citizen has to go to two different departments to get the job done."


The CRG's third and final principle is, "Government must be responsive to the people." Perhaps no complaint about the commission government is aired as often and with as much fervor as this—that the city government doesn't care, that it is too far from the people, that the ordinary voter doesn't count.


The magnitude of this resentment is suggested in an opinion survey done by Sangamon State University and released at Christmas last year. It revealed that 45 percent of more than 200 respondents thought that "local officials”—a group in which city council members occupy a conspicuous place—represent the interests of prominent citizens. Only 25 percent said that the views of the majority were being heeded by their elected representatives.


The man in charge of the study, SSU's Dan Johnson, attributed the findings to the informal network of state employees through which information, most of it unflattering, about government is circulated—a familiarity, Johnson observed, "which could be the source of Springfield's cynicism about the democratic ideal." There could be other factors, including a general disenchantment with government at all levels nowadays. But many of the reformers lay blame for the findings at the feet of the commission government. Ask most of them what they like least about city government in the capital, and unresponsiveness is the first thing they'll bring up.


John Horrighs is the other cochairman, with Ron Maksym, of CRG. Horrighs is a union man, president of United Auto Workers Local 1027 at the Springfield Fiat-Allis plant. "I've lived on the northwest side of the city practically all my life, " he reports. "I'd say the chief thing that bothers me is the unresponsive attitude of the government.


"I'll give you an example. Many areas in this part of the city had quite a struggle with street lights. Either they didn't have them and couldn't get them or the ones they did have were burned out or knocked out. Areas in the southwest part of town, just to compare them, had elaborate ornamental streetlights that were well maintained. Persons who tried to get streetlights for this area had to fight all this bureaucratic red tape. They refer you to this office and that office. Eventually the problem was taken care of. But if we had an alderman from the neighborhood he could cut through the red tape. He would live here and he would understand the problems."


Horrighs is troubled by another aspect of commission government—labor relations. "As a whole, the city council under the commission form is just not sympathetic to labor unions in general. I think that was proven by the firemen's strike last winter. The council did not bargain in good faith. " A bargain struck by one commissioner with the employees in his department is not binding on the council, which can vote it down if it wishes. In such a case, the commissioners feel hamstrung, and union members feel betrayed. Some kind of bargaining mechanism might be devised to settle labor issues in all five departments, but it is uncertain whether individual commissioners would ever surrender their autonomy over their employees. "With a wider based form of city government," Horrighs concludes, "the working class will get a better shake out of it."


CRG is a coalition that bridges the usual gaps between classes and neighborhoods. It includes Julie Carlson, who works for the state Department of Personnel; Alice Kaige of the West Side Neighborhood Association; Nelson Howarth, former mayor; David Robinson, Democratic state representative, and Phyllis Murphy, former chairwoman of the Springfield and Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission. Of the group, Kim Funk notes, "I've never worked with a group so objective in their views and who discuss alternatives so rationally. It's the sanest group I've ever worked with." Maksym "l think these people are working purely for Che good of the city. No one has political ambitions. No one expects anything out of this." Others might dispute that claim to political innocence, and in fact almost certainly will before the issue is settled. They are a long way from success, and coalitions sometimes crack under the pressures of events. But the Citizens for a Representative Government is serious about changing the way things are done at city hall. "We think people are moving with us, Lingenfelter says. "We think we can do it." ●


Sidebar: What All The Fuss Is About


The four forms of city governments allowed in Illinois include:


COMMISSION—Five commissioners elected on an at-large basis, each to head a specific department (street, health& safety, etc,). Five together comprise the city council which exercises legislative authority. The office of mayor is mostly ceremonial. Elections may be either partisan or nonpartisan.


COUNCIL MANAGER—A part-time unpaid council exercises legislative authority. It hires a professional city manager to administer city functions, including hiring department managers. The office of mayor is mostly ceremonial. Elections may be from wards, at-large, or a combination of both. This form may be partisan or nonpartisan.


STRONG MAYOR-—A part-time unpaid council exercises legislative authority. The mayor has extensive administrative powers, including those of appointment and veto. Elections are from wards and may be partisan or nonpartisan.


WEAK MAYOR—A part-time unpaid council exercises legislative authority. It also performs administrative duties via committees. The office of mayor is mostly ceremonial. Elections are from wards and may be partisan or nonpartisan.


Note: Springfield currently is run by a commission government adopted in 1911. Prior to that it was operated by a weak-mayor form of government. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

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McLean County Museum

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Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

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A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

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