The Rockford Institute sits on the northern edge of Rockford’s downtown, at the upper end of a stretch of North Main Street that local boosters have dubbed “the Cultural Corridor.” The corridor is not much even by the standards of modern cities—a few museums, the Coronado Theatre, the New American Theater, the Rockford Woman’s Club, the Mendelssohn Club, and us (though the boosters often overlook that last one)— but, without it, our downtown would be in even worse shape than it is. Urban renewal in the 60’s and 70’s, including an ill-planned “pedestrian mall” that closed off two blocks of Main Street immediately north and south of State Street, the main east-west corridor through downtown, along with the massive growth, from the 80’s on, in Rockford’s Wasteland (the far-east-side development of big-box stores, chain restaurants, and vinyl-sided tract homes), has wreaked havoc on a once thriving downtown. Native Rockfordians still recall when downtown was so crowded on Sunday that cars had a tough time passing through. Today, no major business (outside of restaurants) in downtown is open on the weekend, and the pedestrian mall may feel the footfalls of no more than a dozen people on most Sundays.

As he comes to the end of his first year in office, Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey would like to change that. Morrissey’s commitment to downtown has been abundantly evident in his actions as a lawyer and private developer since his return to his hometown a decade ago. Before his election, he was changing downtown one building at a time; now, as mayor, he has the opportunity to bring about a true—not urban—renewal.

The view from inside city hall, however, is a little different from the view on the outside looking in. It is easy to criticize previous mayors for not doing enough for downtown or for focusing the city’s development efforts on the Wasteland, and I have often done so. The reality, however, is a little more complex, because Rockford’s mayors have, for 23 years, been living under a constraint with which no other mayor of a major city in Illinois has been shackled: the lack of home rule.

The 1970 Illinois constitution gave broad authority to municipalities with populations of 25,000 or more to “exercise any power and perform any function pertaining to its government and affairs including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt.” While the Illinois General Assembly has some ability to restrict the actions of home rule units, the constitution explicitly states that “Powers and functions of home rule units shall be construed liberally.” As of October 2004, there were 167 home rule municipalities in Illinois. However, “A home rule unit by referendum may elect not to be a home rule unit,” putting it in the same position as municipalities with a population under 25,000, who must go to the General Assembly to have certain kinds of legislation—especially relating to taxes and to crime—passed.

In 1983, Rockford became the most recent of only four municipalities in Illinois ever to renounce home rule. In 1980, the final year of Democratic mayor Bob McGaw’s second term, the Rockford City Council passed a 50-cent property-tax increase to try to cover a growing shortfall in the city’s budget. The increase, however, did not take effect until after the mayoral contest in April 1981, when McGaw had retired and Democrat John McNamara was elected. Having examined the city’s finances, McNamara argued that his fellow Democrat had underestimated the city’s financial problems, and he convinced the council to pass a second 50-cent property-tax increase, which took effect about six months after the first.

The uproar was predictable, especially in a city that was suffering at the time from close to 25-percent unemployment. An organization called the Home Rule Advisory Committee was formed by John Gile and several others, and the committee gathered the signatures necessary to place a referendum repealing home rule on the ballot in 1983. While the referendum passed and Rockford renounced home rule, there are three interesting things to note: First, none of the aldermen who voted for both tax increases was turned out of office for doing so; second, McNamara was reelected to a second term and could have won a third, if he hadn’t chosen to step aside for fellow Democrat Charles Box; and third, after the city was stripped of home rule, the city council repealed the two tax increases and then asked the public to approve a referendum increasing property taxes by the very same amount. The referendum passed.

If the voters were willing to shoulder the additional tax burden, and they were unwilling to vote out those who had imposed it, why did they also vote against home rule? The question has several answers, none of them quite satisfactory in itself. Rockford’s tenure as a home-rule city corresponded to an unbroken streak of Democratic control of city hall, and the anti-home rule referendum was a way for Republicans to strike back and effectively hobble a Democratic mayor whom they could not beat. There’s also an undeniable populist tendency among a significant segment of voters in Rockford, and the renunciation of home rule has meant that most issues of any importance have had to go to referendum (though, as a matter of course, Rockford voters have approved virtually all referenda over the past 23 years). And finally, there’s a (sometimes healthy) distrust of local government. The irony there, of course, is that the lack of home rule means that, on many issues, the politicians in Springfield have more control over Rockford’s destiny than the mayor and the city council do. If I have to place my trust anywhere, I’d rather place it on the man I can meet face to face, and have a chance at voting out of office, than on the machine politicians from Chicago who control the Illinois General Assembly.

Change is in the air, however. Will Rockford become the first city in Illinois to return to home rule after once rejecting it? Watch this space . . .