BATAVIA – The Batavia home-rule ballot initiative is becoming a referendum on the Batavia City Council.
Leaders for the two sides of the home-rule question debated the level of accountability provided by the council’s 14 elected aldermen, during a forum on Oct. 21 at the Eastside Community Center.
“We have the best aldermanic representation in the area,” declared Jim Fahrenbach, leader of the “vote no” citizen effort to retain home-rule status for the city.
“It’s about power and money and who controls it,” retorted Sylvia Keppel, arguing that citizens need to strip the city of home-rule powers in order to curb wasteful spending by the council.
Along with Yvonne and Carl Dinwiddie, Keppel filed the referendum question that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. It asks: “Shall the city of Batavia cease to be a home-rule unit?”
A “yes” vote would be to revoke the city’s home-rule powers, which provide the city with additional taxing and bonding authority. The city automatically gained home-rule status in 2009 when the population reached 25,000.
Keppel and the Dinwiddies all took the stage opposite Fahrenbach at the forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Central Kane County and attended by about 35 residents.
Fahrenbach said Batavia has a ratio of about one alderman per 2,000 residents, much higher than any neighboring community.
Representative democracy works, Fahrenbach said, pointing to the 2013 municipal elections, when several incumbent aldermen were defeated because of voter dissatisfaction over the Prairie State electric power deal.
Yvonne Dinwiddie pointed to the large number of aldermen who first gain their seats by appointment, while Keppel noted that aldermen up for election are frequently unopposed.
“We really don’t have the greatest representation,” Dinwiddie said.
Fahrenbach said the City Council has used its home-rule powers to keep property taxes low, by developing other sources of revenue, including sales, gasoline and liquor taxes that are paid by non-residents and residents alike.
“We’ve had home-rule for nearly a decade,” Fahrenbach said. “It has been used rightly and judiciously. We’ve been able to shift part of our tax burden to people who don’t live in Batavia.”
Carl Dinwiddie blasted the city’s actions on the controversial One Washington Place downtown redevelopment, spending money to acquire much of the property at above-market prices
“Home-rule is trusting the city with a blank check,” Dinwiddie said.
The two sides disagreed over the financial impact that the loss of home-rule powers would bring.
“There will be a gigantic hole” in the budget, Fahrenbach said, resulting in service reductions.
Keppel and the Dinwiddies said the city is overstating the potential revenue loss.
“The city would have to prioritize and stop wasteful spending,” Keppel said.
“We don’t have to reduce services,” Yvonne Dinwiddie said. “We had better services without home-rule.”
Fahrenbach said home-rule gives aldermen the flexibility they need to issue bonds to pay for big infrastructure projects.
Carl Dinwiddie said there is always time for the city to bring bond issue questions to the voters.
“Why doesn’t your council trust you to give them what they need?” Keppel said.