Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Shaking Off the Rust

By Shawn Healy
I was emailed last week by Steve Daniels, one of the organizers of a grass roots organization called Change Decatur. He told me about the efforts of his group to collect signatures to gain ballot access for a referendum on the form of government in this depressed Central Illinois city. Daniels thought that their story might be excellent fodder for this blog and the "Share Your Stories" segment of the Freedom Museum web site, and needless to say I was intrigued.

Last Thursday, Daniels sat in on a conference call with me, Brian Burcham, and Keith Anderson to discuss their undertakings. Collectively, they spoke of a medium size city (77,000 residents) in peril, bleeding residents and jobs since the early 1980's. Despite its size and location, Decatur is an urban community with all of its typical implications. Heavily reliant on manufacturing jobs, the city was devastated by a Firestone plant closing and its continued dependence on Caterpillar, Arthur Daniels Midland, and its namesake, A.E. Staley.

The city has a sizable minority population arguably ignored by its current city council and manager, and its schools are in shambles. Poverty is widespread, with 70% of Decatur students qualifying for the federal lunch program.

Unlike many other locales in the Rust Belt, Decatur has responded poorly to the forces of globalization, and the organizers of Change Decatur attribute this to lack of government accountability. The six-member city council is elected on an at-large basis, and its city manager is selected by the council. In order to pass resolutions and ordinances, or to essentially govern the city, the votes of only four council members are required.

Because of its small size and distance from voters compared to an aldermanic system based on wards, the council is allegedly "special interest" centered, focusing narrowly in the purchase of a hotel and constructing a brick street, for example, rather than the more general, pressing issues confronting local residents. The future water supply for the city, for instance, remains unaddressed.

Change Decatur proposes a strong mayor system, with the executive elected at large by voters, and an expanded city council with 20 members elected by ward. The organizers hope to place the proposal before voters when the state heads to the polls for a presidential primary on February 5th. This isn't the first time they tried to find the ballot, however, as their January 2007 effort was nixed when their signatures were challenged. They went to court once more last week as a single objector, a local realtor and former city council member, challenged their authenticity. The verdict is pending.

The group is composed of men and women of disparate interests and backgrounds, but they all agree on the common cause of changing the political course of their city. The working group of 10 to 15 has been buoyed by a number of local endorsements, including the Democratic Party, labor organizations, and teachers. They are wanting for the support of local businesses, and last year were lampooned by the local paper. They are hoping for an editorial endorsement this time around as the election nears, but none of them are holding their breath.

In terms of financial resources, this is, in the words of Burcham, a classic case of David versus Goliath. He has provided over 80% of the seed money thus far, a good portion of it ($20K) devoted to fighting for ballot access via the appeal process. Recently, individuals and unions have made small contributions to their efforts.

You might recall the last time Decatur made national news. It was the Fall of 1999 when Reverend Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow-PUSH Coalition trudged through the cornfields to Decatur to contest the expulsion of 17 African American students for a 17-second fight at a football game for 2 years. Anderson is the President of the Central Illinois Chapter of Rainbow-PUSH, and he recalled how frustrated he was with his initial battle to overturn the arguably excessive punishments. 90 days after he initiated the fight, once Jackson entered the fray, the suspensions were reduced to more reasonable sentences.

Why, you might ask, is this blast from the past recounted here? Anderson points once more to the lack of leadership inherent to a weak mayor system like that established in Decatur. It leaves racial fissures unaddressed, and trickles down to local schools where a strong partnership between city government and the school board is wanting. The board, by the way, is also elected on an at-large basis.

As a student of political science, I can honestly tell you that the verdict is still out on the ideal form of urban governance. "Professional management" forms like that in place in Decatur were a product of the Progressive Era when disgust over urban political machines was at high noon. City managers and councils elected on an at large basis were seen as non-partisan means of negating the patronage and graft endemic to strong mayor-aldermanic systems.

In the last several decades, many cities have reverted to the traditional template for many of the same reasons that Decatur is considering, namely lack of representation and accountability. While I won't hold one form up as superior here, I do commend this upstanding group of citizens for committing their time and treasure to the improvement of the place they call home. Daniels, Burcham, Anderson, and all of the members of Change Decatur embody the principles of effective citizenship, and here's hoping they get a fair shake on election day as local residents choose to either renew their commitment to their current form of government, or to sign a new social contract in favor of a strong mayor system.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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