After referendum’s failure, Moving Danville Forward is moving on

via The News-Gazette

After losing their bid this month to change Danville to a city-manager form of government, members of the Moving Danville Forward group are doing just that — moving forward.

Leaders of the group it is dissolving, its website has been shut down and members are moving on with their lives with no plans to stay organized for anything, especially another try at convincing voters to change how they’ve been governed for more than 20 years. The proposal was soundly defeated, 4,592 to 3,251.

“We’re done. The people spoke,” said Pat O’Shaughnessy, chairman of the nonpartisan panel that filed in May with the Illinois State Board of Elections as a ballot-initiative group called the Committee to Support Adoption of City Manager, with Moving Danville Forward as its slogan. “As a formal group, we are done.”

Doug Ahrens, the city’s former public works director who was actively involved in getting the question on the ballot and holding numerous public forums to educate voters about the city-manager style of government, said the group thanks the more than 3,000 people who did vote for change.

He and O’Shaughnessy said they believe their group at least raised awareness in the community about the city’s serious financial condition and believe that will lead to more questioning of city government.

“If we did one thing, we did that,” O’Shaughnessy said.

Ahrens said he believes the idea of city-manager government could be raised again in the future, partly because it’s growing in popularity. Two-thirds of communities are under this form of government, he claimed.

“It doesn’t mean (the idea) is gone forever. ... This wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last time,” said Ahrens, who added that Danville doesn’t take to change quickly, attributing that comment to former Mayor Bob Jones, whom he worked under early in his career.

When Danville switched from the commissioner form of government more than 20 years ago after the filing of a voting-rights lawsuit, a push was made for city-manager government, but the city adopted the current strong mayor-aldermanic form instead. Jones was the city’s first mayor under that new format.

Committed to moving forward on a positive note for the sake of the community, both O’Shaughnessy and Ahrens said they were reluctant to get too detailed with “Monday morning quarterbacking” on the election but emphasized a few areas where the effort failed.

O’Shaughnessy said their committee did not win over one core group of voters: retirees.

“We failed to convince the retired citizens whose nest eggs are most at risk,” said O’Shaughnessy, who bases that analysis on conversations with retirees and on election results in precincts where retiree voting is typically strong.

The referendum failed in 25 of Danville’s 29 precincts, and in the four where it won, it was only by slim margins — 63, 28, 10 and 11 votes. Three of those four are in Ward 7 on the north end, north of Winter Avenue, including the Denvale, Denvale West and Chateau Estates subdivisions west of Lake Vermilion.

Those three subdivisions comprise Precinct 17, which had the highest number of “yes” votes (281) and widest margin of victory (63) and the second-highest voter turnout, 62 percent, compared with the others.

But in the rest of the city south of Winter Avenue, the referendum failed in every precinct except for a small one in the center of town, and voter turnout was solid across the board, including at six precincts south of Winter where more than half of registered voters got to the polls. Another four had turnout over 40 percent.

“Seniors always vote, and we were never able to convince them,” O’Shaughnessy said, adding that he believes a person’s perception of what’s an acceptable salary freezes when they retire. He said that when going door-to-door before the election, seniors he talked with objected to a city manager earning $130,000 a year and the pension that would go with it.

In Freeport, it took three attempts to get voters to approve a city-manager form of government, and O’Shaughnessy said the business community there really got behind the final push. Here, he said, that didn’t happen. The leadership of Vermilion Advantage, a membership organization of local employers and businesses, decided to stay officially neutral on the proposal, he said.

Ahrens added that “distractions” put forth by the opposition took a toll on their message by pushing the debate off the “true story.”

“The distractions obviously resonated with people,” said Ahrens, referring partly to false statements about various motives of individual members of their committee or the committee as a whole.

Gayle Brandon, retired city comptroller and a member of the Moving Danville Foward, said considering the complaints about city government she heard from the public during her long career with the city, she was surprised with the outcome, and she was also disappointed with personal attacks on her and other committee members’ integrity from some who were opposed to the change.

“We were just trying to do what was best for the city,” she said. “The citizens did not agree, and I’m OK with that. ... I’m just ready to move on.”

Another distraction, they said, was Danville landlord Jerry Hawker’s campaign-disclosure complaint with the state board of elections objecting to the group not using its formal name, the Committee to Support Adoption of City Manager, in its advertising and marketing materials.

A state election board hearing on that complaint that was scheduled for Thursday morning in Springfield has been canceled as the complaint is now being dropped, O’Shaughnessy said.

On Monday, candidates for mayor and alderman begin filing for April’s municipal election, and Ahrens said the performance of the city’s government in the next few years could lead to the city-manager proposal coming up again.

Brandon also said she would not be surprised if the city-manager idea emerges again, depending how things go.

But both Ahrens and O’Shaughnessy emphasized it wouldn’t be this group of individuals proposing change again — especially O’Shaughnessy, who said he has no interest in being involved in another push.

Ahrens, however, isn’t entirely closed to the idea.

“I never say never. I plan to stay involved in some way,” said Ahrens, adding that, for now, he’s happily going back to focusing all of his attention on his job as director of the Danville Sanitary District and on his young grandchildren, who live locally — “which was my whole focus from the beginning of this. The future.”

O’Shaughnessy, the owner of Vermilion County Title Inc. downtown who has adult children living and working in the community, said that’s a big reason for his passion about the future of the city’s government and financial situation. A longtime volunteer who has served as chairman of causes like Festival of Trees, United Way and Balloons Over Vermilion, O’Shaughnessy said he’s done with this initiative but not the community.

“It doesn’t mean, as individuals, that we won’t be involved in a city we love,” he said.

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