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Kadner: Local voters trust leaders to buy cheap electricity

Tuesday, May 01, 2012
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

It could be considered a poll on how much voters trust their suburban governments.

Cook County Clerk David Orr isn’t making that kind of judgment, but he has gathered some statistics on the March primary election that are interesting, if not especially revealing.

Of 62 municipalities in Cook County that held referendums on whether residents wanted them to collectively negotiate with electricity suppliers on their behalf, only 11 voted “no.”

With only two exceptions, Orr’s office notes, communities with higher median-income levels were more likely to support “electricity aggregation.” Opposition to the idea seemed to be clustered in lower-income towns, according to the clerk’s office, which is the official record-keeper for suburban elections.

In theory, the savings that would result from negotiating a better deal with an electricity supplier (which might amount to a few hundred dollars a year) would mean more to low-income residents than those with higher incomes.

In looking over the results, while several lower-income communities opposed giving towns the power to negotiate electric rates on their behalf, many others supported the idea.

For example, the south suburbs that voted “no” on the referendum question were Chicago Heights, Lynwood, Matteson, Midlothian, Richton Park and Riverdale. The median household incomes are $38,972 for Chicago Heights; $56,946 for Lynwood; $66,745 for Matteson; $59,739 for Midlothian; $54,676 for Richton Park, and $42,690 for Riverdale, according to Orr’s office.

But among the towns voting for aggregation were Dolton, with a median income of $51,090; Bridgeview, at $44,877; South Chicago Heights, $44,290; Palos Hills, $57,264; and Sauk Village, $51,908.

So income alone might not have been as significant a factor in the final vote, especially when you add the villages of Barrington Hills (median income $135,917) and Bartlett ($90,371) to the equation. They were the only affluent towns to vote against giving their governments the authority to negotiate with an electrical supplier.

I have a hunch (and no scientific proof) that in the communities where voters cast “no” votes, they did so because they didn’t trust their governments to represent them in negotiations with suppliers.

In communities such as Tinley Park, Orland Park and Evergreen Park, more than 60 percent of voters said they wanted their village officials to negotiate electricity rates on their behalf.

I should point out that the contracts the municipalities sign are not binding on their residents, who can decide to use other electricity suppliers.

I’m not suggesting that residents of any of the communities that voted “yes” on the referendum question are always in agreement with their elected leaders, but I think they trust the government in general to represent them in a professional way.

In Flossmoor, by the way, 84.5 percent of voters said they wanted the village to represent them in negotiations. Only Glencoe, at 85.5 percent, had a larger percentage of “yes” votes in Cook County.

Just over 80 percent of voters in tiny Bedford Park said “yes,” but that vote was 110 to 26. In Flossmoor, the vote was 2,095 to 383.

Having implied that confidence, or lack thereof, in government may have been the most significant factor in the voting, the results in Sauk Village would seem to undermine my conclusion. Sauk Village is a disaster where a battle between village trustees and the mayor resulted in the new police chief being locked out of his office and threatened with arrest.

Confidence in government is essential in negotiating electric utility contracts because there are opportunities for officials to be influenced by offers of cash or gifts to their towns.

I suppose, as in any election, voter education may have played a key role in the outcomes. I do know that before the March primary, I received several calls and emails from readers asking me what I thought of electricity aggregation.

Based on what I was able to learn, I told them vote for it if you trust your local leaders to negotiate a good deal and vote against it if you don’t.

I emphasized that under state law, consumers had the right to opt out of any contract signed by their local government, but the response from cynics was always the same — “I don’t trust the government.”

Given the result of the votes on electricity aggregation, however, it seems clear that most voters do trust their municipal government.

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