JOLIET – The grassroot citizen's group that wants to recast the political structure of the Joliet City Council has a Monday deadline to turn in petitions.
Concerned Citizens of Joliet wants to change the current City Council structure from five district seats and three at-large seats – a format that has been in place since the 1950s – to eight district seats.
The group needs 1,500 signatures to place the issue on the Nov. 4 ballot. The deadline to file the petitions with the city is Monday. Aug. 11 is the last day to file objections to the petitions. If no one objects, the question needs to be submitted by the city to the Will County Clerk's office by Aug. 28 to get on the ballot.
"We're confident that we'll have more than enough signatures to get it on the ballot," group spokesman Rich Rodriguez said.
The group has been seeking support for its Joliet For Eight Districts plan, meeting with community groups and going door-to-door for petition signatures.
The group maintains that mixed district and at-large representation does not accurately or fairly reflect the city's geography and population.
Supporters of the existing system, however, say it gives citizens more representation by providing three at-large council members if they are not satisfied with the district council member.
District seats represent the five geographic zones the city is divided into; council members must reside in the districts they represent. At-large seats represent the city as a whole; council members can reside anywhere in the city.
Jolietans currently vote for the councilperson in their district, the three at-large candidates and mayor, which also is an at-large seat. Under an all-district system, voters would cast a ballot for the councilperson in their district, plus the mayor.
Concerned Citizens primarily complaint is that because of the at-large component, too many council members reside in the same part of town.
"We've been getting the same response from the far west side of Joliet to the far east side," Rodriguez said. "People are surprised when they find out that six council members living within a 4-square-mile area of each other. When we show them what that looks like on a map, they are astonished."
Concerned Citizens of Joliet maintains that:
• 66 percent of the city council lives in an area encompassing only 15 percent of the city's 62.7 square miles.
• Six of eight Joliet council members live in an area of 4 square miles.
• Four council members and the mayor live within 1.5 square miles of one another, the four council members within one square mile of one another.
Joliet's city council districts were drawn in the 1950s. The map was reconfigured by the council in 2013 to reflect population growth, though the representation format of five districts and three at-large seats remained the same.
Not everyone on the council agrees adding new districts is the answer.
"I am not in favor of the eight districts," said Mike Turk, one of three at-large council members. "Currently residents can vote for five of the nine individuals on the City Council, which is a majority on any issue. Under the new proposal they will have two votes—their district councilperson and the mayor."
Bettye Gavin, newly appointed councilwoman for District 4, said that while she is neutral on the issue, she also understands the need to have at-large council members.
"With the current form of government, if one council member is not able to serve, the at-large council members are there ready to help out and make sure the people's needs are met," Gavin said. "To me the current setup ... is a suitable form of government."
Mayor Tom Giarrante said an all-district system has some limitations.
"Should [a district resident's] only council representative be unresponsive or does not support their issue, they have one option, whereas now they have four," Giarrante said.
Another key issue would be determining how to divide the city up into eight new districts.
But while it is calling for a new city council district map, Concerned Citizens of Joliet does not yet have a map, Rodriguez said.
“Once we get the petition on the ballot, we're going to ask residents to participate and get input from the community directly,” Rodriguez said. “We plan to do a road show, showing residents what eight districts could look like.”
Ultimately any redistricting map would have to be created and approved by the City Council. City Attorney Jeff Plyman noted at a recent council meeting that unless the measure was specifically put on the ballot as an advisory referendum, the City Council would have to abide by the decision and redraw its maps.
Another question left unanswered, should the referendum pass, is when voters would elect members in the new districts.
If the measure were to pass Nov. 4, for instance, candidates for the new districts would have to file nomination papers by Nov. 24 for the April 7, 2015, election. Otherwise elections would have to be pushed back until Nov. 3, 2015.
In its current form, the referendum question will be: "Shall The City of Joliet be divided into Eight Districts with one Council Person to be elected from each District, but with the Mayor to be elected from the City At Large."