How a plan took shape to change the way Normal’s Town Council is elected
There are less than 20 days for supporters of the effort to divide Normal into districts to collect enough signatures to get a referendum question on the Nov. 8 ballot. If they do, Normal voters will see a yes-or-no referendum question that, if supported en masse, would shake up the town’s current system of government almost immediately.
Petitioners are seeking Normal residents’ signatures on a petition that asks the following question: “Should the town be divided into six districts, with one trustee elected from each district?” That's how the city council works in Bloomington.
The question itself is clear, but why the question is being asked right now is less clear.
WGLT reached out to Stan Nord, a town council member who has actively promoted the petition. Nord is one of the more conservative members of the council and has butted heads with Mayor Chris Koos and town staff repeatedly since being elected in 2019.
Nord, according to the website GoFundMe.com, is listed as the organizer of a fundraiser aimed at collecting $4,999 to support the petition process, although only $200 has been committed to the effort as of Wednesday. (Editor's Note: At the time of publication Wednesday, the goal for the GoFundMe was $5,000; a spokesperson confirmed it was recently adjusted by $1.)
However, Nord declined to speak to WGLT about the petition, its purpose, or his thoughts on the matter, saying he did not “feel comfortable” doing so.
Fellow Normal town council member Kathleen Lorenz said some Normal constituents also have questions regarding the extent of Nord’s involvement.
“I’ve had people coming to me being like, ‘What’s this for?’ …This one guy sent me this (email) about ‘... interesting, proposal apparently offered by Stan?’” Lorenz said. “I think people are a little hesitant because he’s shown a style of being more disruptive and they question whether this is a disruptive tactic.”
Bloomington-Normal radio host and Illinois Libertarian Party chair Steve Suess said he wasn’t surprised to hear of hesitance to speak on-the-record about the initiative to the media, although Nord recently appeared on a Cities 92.9 radio show in which Suess, a Normal resident, promoted the petition.
“The people involved don’t want it to be politicized. We’ve seen this happen with issues in our community before. We’ve seen it happen with issues nationally,” Suess said. “This is not left or right, or Republican or Democrat, or even Libertarian. To me, this is a democratic issue.”
Learning from Rantoul
Despite signatories representing an array of political ideologies, the effort to start the petition’s circulation through Normal has ties to people with openly partisan motives, including conservative McLean County blogger Diane Benjamin, according to a man who says he spoke with Benjamin in Rantoul.
Rantoul, a village of about 12,000 people situated roughly 50 miles east of Normal, had its first district-based election in April 2021 after some residents successfully petitioned for — and voters passed — a referendum that switched its council from at-large to district-based representation.
Jasmyne Boyce, a lifelong village resident, said residents who supported the switch felt trustees were only invested in certain parts of the village while neglecting others. Boyce said she felt race and gender were representative on the board as a whole, but not all of the village’s neighborhoods were — hence the push for reform.
“We had a lot of citizens who were very vocal about it,” Boyce said.
Boyce said another member, Jack Anderson, said he was “approached” at a Rantoul event in March by “Diane Benjamin, Bloomington-Normal watchdog who hosts the website ‘Bloomington Normal News’ asking about Rantoul’s districting referendum. (Anderson) then sent her a summary of our efforts and copies of some of our petition materials, background research and letters to the editors.”
“I believe there were some common threads in our sphere of influence; we had aligned ourselves with a number of ‘watchdog’ groups,” Boyce told WGLT in an interview. “I felt that there were a lot of similarities between what they were experiencing in Normal and what we had originally faced in coming up with the idea to … try to get the system to change.”
Central to the premise of changing the system in Normal, according to the petition’s website, is that the town — and by proxy, its representatives — “ignore(s)” problems like “bad roads, brown tap water” because they are “every trustee’s problem but no one’s responsibility,” since council members are voted into office by the voting population, not just one particular segment of town.
The water, in particular, “is a common talking point,” according to Lorenz.
“A year ago, there was a neighborhood where (Nord) felt that it took too long to address a rusty water problem. I’m here to tell you that issue was addressed — not overnight, but these are problems that sometimes take longer to diagnose and finally fix,” she said. “Whether you had a council member who lived near (that neighborhood) or not, I don’t think that would have gotten fixed any sooner.”
Potholes, road conditions and other issues, too, are in the ears of Lorenz and other council members who listen to constituents. But the town’s style of government — at-large versus district — is not among those complaints, she said.
“I’m hearing on an unsolicited basis from people reaching out to me like, ‘Why do we need this? This seems dumb,’” Lorenz said. “‘I like it this way — don’t mess this up. If ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ That kind of thing.”
Koos, who has been mayor since 2003, recently told WGLT he does not support the petition and cited flaws within its messaging: Namely, that trustees live clustered in a more affluent area.
"We're not that large of a community — seven minutes from edge to edge if you're in your automobile. Geographically, council members have been located all over the city," Koos said. "They're making the argument that that's not true now, but they're looking at it at a one-two-year window, not at the historical location of council members."
Chemberly Cummings, the first and only Black woman elected to Normal’s town council in 2017, said she too is not hearing complaints about the style of the town’s government as it relates to representation.
“I will be 100% honest: I have never heard that people just couldn’t access anybody or felt like they hadn’t been heard,” Cummings said. “I am very aware of the demographics that sometimes feel more comfortable reaching out to me. I have talked to many people of color who have left this town because they don’t feel … the engagement has been for them. We know there is still continued work to do, but never have I heard within the circles I’ve been, the places I’ve been, that ‘I’ve never been heard' or 'I don’t have anyone to reach out to.’”
Neither has the Bloomington-Normal NAACP, according to president Linda Foster, and first vice president Carla Campbell-Jackson.
“We have not heard from constituents as to if there’s an issue — if wards are better or at-large is better,” Foster said. “We have not heard any complaints in this area. Now, if it wasn’t working, we’d be hearing about it.”
On the website that offers petition materials for circulation in Normal, there’s a prominent section called “NAACP Stance” that links to a PDF of the national NAACP’s stance on at-large voting versus single-member districts.
Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1968, the organization has generally favored district-based representation since at-large systems can lead to the dilution of the Black or other minority voice in elections.
But that, Foster said, is a general position taken by the national organization; it is not, necessarily, the position taken by the Bloomington-Normal NAACP.
“We believe that, right here in Bloomington-Normal, we may not be comparing apples to apples,” Foster said. “In most cases, African Americans are segregated in one particular, main area, so wards work better — or wards would work better. But when you talk about Bloomington-Normal, we’re just everywhere. We’re everywhere within our community.”
To be clear, Foster and Campbell-Jackson say they believe petitioners or signatories or voters should do what they feel is right, meaning that if there is a problem they feel the petition or vote to change the government would solve, they should feel free to support whatever initiative they feel would create change.
But Foster said that, regarding ongoing issues of systemic barriers, she’s unsure whether “at-large versus single-member” systems locally are at the heart of the issue.
“I don’t think there’s one specific answer to that problem because of the type of voting that we do. It’s based on popularity: Who can attract the most people to line up with what they think and what they are promising,” she said. “I think that we are looking at it like, ‘Which one has this, and if we had this (style), then we'd do this,’ but that's not true. That's not true. It's people and issues when it comes down to it.”
Cummings said she personally did not feel running for office in an at-large election in Normal was an insurmountable barrier.
Supporters of the district-based model say it would be easier to run for Normal council if the number of signatures required was reduced, depending on the size of the district.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been in this space for a long time, or because I’ve helped other candidates, but it’s not hard,” Cummings said. “If you want to do it, you’ll do the work. Especially if it's something you truly want to do, is something you're truly passionate about … and you want to spend the time getting to know the people of the community and not just knowing or gathering people who might agree with you.”
Suess, who has said the district-based system would be more democratic, said he supports the districts because it would lead to less money in political campaigning.
"There's certainly greater accountability in a situation like Normal’s because everybody's got to be responsible to every voter."Tari Renner, former Bloomington mayor and a political scientist
“I don’t think being independently wealthy should be a pre-qualification to run for office and have a legitimate shot at winning,” he said. “But unfortunately, in the Town of Normal, we’ve seen that from time to time where the more money that gets spent might win the race. That’s an unfortunate reality of politics in general.”
Former Bloomington mayor and Illinois Wesleyan University political scientist Tari Renner said lowering the requirements to get on a ballot in general is not, by default, a more democratic system.
“It all depends on how you define democracy. If you were, let’s say, to have a system that produces people who really are only known in their neighborhood and may not have broad support and most of the city council fits that bill, I don’t know that they’re going to be making decisions that are actually more representative than the overall perspective,” Renner said. “There's certainly greater accountability in a situation like Normal’s because everybody's got to be responsible to every voter.”
As an academic, Renner mentioned the “70 years’ worth” of political science debate on the at-large versus district-model that informs his opinions, but he’s also lived the difference in Bloomington, having presided over a city represented by wards. He cited overly “parochial” views about accountability to constituents as a contributing factor to the fact that it took Bloomington “nearly 10 years” to come to an agreement regarding solid waste disposal.
“We also had several people who got elected around when the Coliseum was passed just because they didn’t want the Coliseum,” he said. District-based candidates “may have an ideological agenda that gets them a very narrow slice of votes, whereas if you're in an at-large system, you have to have a little broader appeal.”
Renner said there is evidence that district-based systems can be more equitable than at-large counterparts, but those systems are better exemplified in larger, more diverse areas like “Chicago, Cleveland or Pittsburgh where the districts themselves are as large as Bloomington or Normal.”
What would the districts look like?
Just how the proposed districts in Normal would be determined is another question that has no clear answer, except for the legal process.
If the question of districts gets on the ballot and passes, Normal would legally be required to “divide the village into 6 compact and contiguous districts of approximately equal population,” according to state law. The deadline to finish creating districts would be “no less than 30 days before the first day of filing nominating petitions” for the next election of council members. Whether an independent commission or bipartisan group would do the actual work would be up to the town.
“Of course, that’s another thing: Then you get into real big political fights about gerrymandering,” Renner said. “Drawing district lines is never going to be neutral, even if you don’t have some of the difficulties with the dorms and ISU students that are about 40% of the Normal population.”
Suess said he believes student representation on the town council is a compelling argument for dividing the town into districts. While it’s unclear how to create maps of a town that has at least a couple of densely populated, heavily student areas around ISU’s campus, he said that’s all the more reason to try.
“One of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard of this idea is that, based on population, Illinois State University is going to be its own ward, its own district, just because there’s so many registered voters in that 10 square blocks of ISU and the apartments around it,” he said. “I think people who make that argument are missing the point: If that’s the case, then they should probably have a voice on the council, right? If they don’t have a representative, someone representing them on the council, there’s a problem with the way that we’re running our democracy.”
Bob Bradley, a longtime professor at ISU in its Department of Politics and Government, echoes the concern about student representation within local government, to an extent. In fact, he said, it galvanized him to run for Normal’s town council more than 20 years ago.
“I ran essentially arguing that I would represent student interests because, at that time, I didn’t feel they were being represented very well,” he said. “I campaigned on that and someone who was working for another candidate said, ‘There’s a coalition of interests that will make sure you don’t get on.’ I did it primarily as a civic exercise… (but) I still have some questions as to whether what students want is being represented in this town.”
But even Bradley doesn’t have a clear idea about how students would be counted if the town were to be divided. And it’s not that students are barred entirely from running for town council: Anyone running would just need to meet residency requirements and capture enough votes in the entire town. That’s not enough for Bradley, despite criticisms of where the system could do better for students, to find justification to fault it entirely.
“I don’t think anybody that would be in any way open-minded would say, ‘The Town of Normal is broken.’ I can’t see a person that would make that argument rationally. There are certain tweaks, there’s certain things that could be done a little differently, but this would be a fundamental change,” he said.
League of Women Voters would study the issue
So fundamental would the change be that the McLean County chapter of the League of Women Voters plans to do a study on the matter if enough signatures are gathered for the question to be on the ballot in November.
A nonpartisan organization aimed at increasing access to voting, voter education and other democratically oriented goals, the LWV sometimes issues stances on certain matters if members feel there is a need.
“Some things we do have a position on and if we do, we can advocate for them one way or the other,” said LWV-McLean County president Laurie Bergner. “If we don’t have a position, we have to do a study and see whether there is consensus within our group on what position we want to take about the thing that we just studied.”
Come Aug. 1, if there were enough signatures on the petitions to get the yes-or-no question on the ballot, Bergner said the process of getting a study done and assessing whether there is consensus on the LWV’s stance would likely have to be “accelerated” to give voters enough time to process the implication of the study.
“It's not going to be a dissertation, but I think that we can get some important information that we can share with our members and then with the public pretty quickly,” she said.
What concerns her the most, she said, is the messaging surrounding political issues, of which this petition happens to be among legions of others. Bergner said messaging around most political issues is aimed at selling a particular concept, but voters should be prepared to consider all aspects: pros, cons, whether statements are being made fairly or not.
“This is an important question. If it does get on the ballot, people should take it seriously,” Bergner said. “I hope that people will be very careful in how they assess it, not just listening to either side without taking a good look at what they’re saying. Assuming the league comes out with a position, (I hope) they take it seriously, coming from a nonpartisan organization that has no ax to grind, except looking at what we believe is good governance and looking at why we say something is — or is not — good governance.”