Interest building in switch from at-large to district elections for Pike County Board

Posted: Dec. 1, 2012 2:55 pm Updated: Dec. 22, 2012 6:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

PITTSFIELD, Ill. -- If Dick Peebles could change one thing about the Pike County Board, he would like to see broader geographic representation among its board members.

When elected to the board a decade ago, Peebles didn't think it was right that its members then came from Pittsfield, Pittsfield Township or at least had graduated from Pittsfield High School.

He saw that begin to change with the next election when Mark Mountain from Perry and Cleve Curry from Griggsville won seats, then two years later when Robert Kenady of Hull and Don Peebles of Pleasant Hill joined the board. But now as he goes off the board, only two of the nine members don't have a Pittsfield address or live in the Pikeland School District, and both those men, Curry and Fred Bradshaw, have a Griggsville address.

Put another way, "that's 19 townships without any representation," Peebles said in farewell remarks this week at his last board meeting. "I don't think it's right. It's not enough representation for the whole county."

Peebles wants a board committee to look at the issue -- and possibly at electing board members by district instead of at-large.

The committee may get some more encouragement from Lillian Bowen.

The Barry woman, who ran unsuccessfully for a board seat in the November election, is making phone calls and gathering information on the possibility of putting the question on the ballot as early as April.

"The whole county needs to be represented. When you look at the numbers, they're all in the Pittsfield area," Bowen said. "I just think we should all have fair representation. That's what it all amounts to."

Residents can gather signatures to place an advisory referendum on the ballot, but Bowen said the board has the final decision on whether it goes on the ballot, and if it passes, whether to follow the public's wishes. The board also can put a referendum on the ballot on its own, without the petition effort.

Another option, Bowen said, is filing a lawsuit against the county.

That happened in Springfield about 20 years, Bowen said, when residents sued to force the city to move from at-large to ward elections because some ares of the city had no representation.

"Like us, they were excluded from being part of the board. Basically that's what's happening to smaller communities," she said. "There's not enough votes on this side of the county."

Pike County Clerk Donnie Apps said his office has been contacted about the districting/at-large issue "probably three times in 10 years," including a phone call from Bowen.

The County Board last talked about districting in 2002 with a proposal calling for three districts with three board members in each district, but the idea stalled.

"I wouldn't want people of Kinderhook, people of Pleasant Hill to feel they're forgotten because they don't have representation on the board," board member Jim Sheppard said. "I know Pittsfield is the main population base, but we need to take care of all of Pike County. That's what we're elected to do and what I try to do."

Sheppard understands people outside of Pittsfield, the county's population center, may feel they don't stand a chance of winning a seat. Electing board members by district, not at-large, could address that concern, but at the same time both parties struggled to field a full slate of candidates in this month's election.

"Maybe districts would give us a chance to put more people onto the board," Sheppard said. "Districts are based on population, and there might be a district just of Pittsfield and Newburg Townships. It would give more balance to the board and maybe be more beneficial to the county as a whole."

Board member Michael Boren said there are issues that come up with elections by district instead of at-large.

"Equal population for districts and redistricting every 10 years," Boren said. "It's a whole different ball of wax."

Sheppard also sees a potential downside.

"What if one district has four really good candidates? Obviously only three of them can get elected. Maybe one district only puts forth two people you as a voter want on the board, and the third guy is somebody who's got a personal agenda. There's that pitfall," Sheppard said. But with the county's population of roughly 16,000 divided into three districts, "you'd think surely you can find three good people out of 5,000 every time," Sheppard said.