Township government has served both the rural and urban residents of Illinois since 1848. Although Illinois’ 1,432 townships still function according to provisions of the Township Act of 1874, amendments to the act have kept township government as modern as any and more progressive than most. Township government is grassroots government, the closest level of government to the people.
By statute, three services are to be provided by townships: a general assistance program to qualifying residents, property assessment, and maintenance of township roads and bridges. General assistance at the township level provides immediate help to the destitute, according to local standards and needs and with local dollars. Accurate property assessments provide income through tax levies for all local governments. The greater the proficiency of the township assessor, the more equitable the taxes paid by the property owners.
Township road district commissioners are directly responsible for maintaining more than 53 percent of the state’s total road miles and nearly half of all bridges. These roads and bridges provide access for police and fire protection, school buses and rural postal service. Even in highly urban areas, township highway commissioners are vital. In Cook County alone, the 22 highway commissioners are directly responsible for more than 300 miles of local roads. Township roads may not be as heavily traveled as the ones under the state or interstate systems, but they are lifelines that must be maintained and kept open despite floods, snow, etc., especially in rural Illinois. Neither the state, county nor municipal road systems could accept the responsibility of the townships’ more than 71,000 miles of road and 17,000 bridges without increasing their own tax rates or abandoning some of them, or both.
But beyond these mandated functions, many townships offer a variety of social services designed to improve life for their township residents, including senior citizen and youth programs, transportation, and cemetery maintenance.
A unique feature of township government is the annual town meeting that all townships hold each April, the only instance in local government in which the citizens have a direct say in how their government is run. Some township detractors claim the annual town meeting is archaic, but they overlook the fact that this is true democracy in action. No other form of government annually places 38 specific voting powers in the hands of the people. This is just another example of why township government is truly the grassroots government of the people.
To better serve Illinois’ township residents, the Township Officials of Illinois association was organized in 1907 to promote township legislation and to educate officials on their duties and responsibilities. The association’s role has grown dramatically over the years; more than 99 percent of Illinois townships are members of TOI and rely on the association’s expertise in answering questions on township policy and procedure.
The monthly magazine, Township Perspective, keeps members informed of legislative initiatives and of dates and locations of the many educational workshops held to make sure that township officials are knowledgeable and responsible in performing their duties. TOI members are also members of the National Association of Towns and Townships, a representation in Washington, D.C. for the nearly 17,000 primarily small, rural township governments in the United States.
TOI holds an Annual Educational Conference for all officials, in addition to the many seminars held throughout the year by the specific divisions representing each township office.
In the late 1970s, the Supervisors’ Division began conducting training courses to help officials administer general assistance, and in accounting and bookkeeping practices. Shortly thereafter, the Highway Commissioners’ Division began holding seminars in road maintenance, the administration of road districts, budget and levy procedures, and how to make the taxpayers’ dollars go further.
Also in the 70s, the Assessors’ Division was instrumental in enacting legislation establishing pre-election qualifications and also in providing training to enable assessors or potential assessors to get the education required to meet the new qualification standards. The Clerks’ and Trustees’ Divisions are now also holding regular seminars to better prepare those officials for the work they do.
In 1980, Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court decision (Griffe v. Spanski) Justice Albert G. Webber III wrote: “Township government today is probably the last bastion of pure democracy in an otherwise bureaucratized republic. It is the direct descendant of the idealized state envisioned by the ancient philosophers where every man could speak his piece and be afforded a hearing by his peers. The government may propose action, but is subject to the will of its constituents.”
Township government was, and is, intended to follow the will of the people and to respond to their needs. Township government today meets these criteria better and more effectively than any other form of local government.
Updated June 27, 2011
Submitted by Bryan Smith, Executive Director, Township Officials of Illinois. The Township Officials of Illinois [TOI] is a private, not-for-profit organization that currently represents 99% of the state's 1,432 townships. TOI was organized in 1907 in an effort to promote township government in Illinois. Originally, TOI's principle function was lobbying on behalf of member townships. Today, TOI's function is three-fold: the education of township officials; the promotion of township government; and lobbying on behalf of Illinois townships.