The Battle of the "Mergerites": Champaign-Urbana Considers Merger in 1953
Anti-Mergerite H.I. Green (R) and Anti-Merger Committee Chair Olin Browder (L) appreciate a sign located at Wright St and University Ave that will stay up following the merger defeat. Urbana Courier, 10/7/53
By Logan Mullins, CCHM Intern
The communities of Urbana and Champaign have operated largely autonomously since their inception. While the sister cities have always maintained a close, friendly relationship, the spirit of independence has thrived in both of the town’s people for generations. With this historical context in mind, it may be surprising to learn that there have been a few attempts to merge the two municipalities together throughout the years, most notably in the early 1950s.
In 1951, the Illinois General Assembly passed a statute allowing for the maximum population of cities adopting the Council-Manager type of government to increase from 5,000 to 500,000. This allowed for Champaign, Urbana, or both to be eligible for this type of government. Subsequently, the Urbana Civic Committee proposed the formation of an internal committee to explore the possibility of merging the two communities together and being governed under the Council-Manager system. The main benefit of this type of government system is increased efficiency among the various pieces of the local government. This efficiency increase would be even more substantial were the two towns to merge into one.
A committee was quickly formed to seek out the merger, and soon after this, another committee was formed to stand against the merger proposal. Both committees appointed upstanding members of the two communities to lead them. The committee in favor of merging was headed by Jeanne Mathews (also known as E. G. Matthews) and included citizens from both towns across numerous different walks of life.
The committee opposed to the merger was composed of businessmen and lawyers from the immediate area; they selected a local attorney, and former Urbana Mayor Olin Browder to serve as their Chairman.
From the beginning, the Urbana Courier reported on the positions of both groups as they became clear. This event’s history can be retold so easily because the Courier published such detailed reports at the time, and those records still exist today. The Courier’s focus quickly settled on the topic of merger, and the question of adopting a new form of government was put on the backburner and would not end up being addressed again until well after the question of the merger was decided.
The people in favor of the merger, the Pro-Mergerites, generally held the belief that merging Urbana and Champaign would lead to administrative convenience, as there would no longer be a need for two park districts, two sanitation departments, etc. Furthermore, the two
communities would no longer need to coordinate with each other over large events or issues that affected both towns, such as holiday celebrations or the University of Illinois. A single government would be formed to address all issues, which would save time and money for all constituents.
The citizens against the merger, or the Anti-Mergerites, believed that the possible negative consequences of merging were not worth the benefits. Their general view was that Urbana’s voice would be permanently drowned out by Champaign’s due to the two communities’ relative sizes, so Urbana would ultimately become a suburb of Champaign. Urbana would lose its independence, and therefore its charm. Additionally, Anti-Mergerites noted that larger cities have larger tax rates, and the larger a city is the higher the likelihood for corruption is in its government. They also noted likely logistical struggles, such as the need to either shut down or merge each town’s public library system and Post Office.
The proposed merger became quite the topic of conversation in both towns. Numerous op-eds were published in the local newspapers, the Pro-Mergerite and Anti-Mergerite committees each produced ad campaigns to get their opinion out, and a number of debates were held by these committees in the proceeding months in both towns. For all of 1952 and most of 1953, the topic of merger rang out clearly first and foremost in most conversations around Champaign and Urbana. According to the reports and polling did by the Urbana Courier leading up to the special vote, there was no clear consensus on how it would turn out. Some days it seemed like the merger would pass easily, while on others it seemed obvious that Anti-Mergerites would win out.
The vote was scheduled for October 6th, 1953. Representatives from both committees treated this referendum in much the same way as they would treat a local election. Advertisements could be seen throughout town or heard on the local radio stations. Yard signs were put out declaring the residents’ stance in favor of or against the proposal. Election Judges were present at every voting location, along with volunteer monitors from both committees to keep an eye on the proceedings.
On voting day, the polls closed at 5 PM. By 6:30 PM, most votes had been counted and the local newscast station was able to provide the preliminary results of the vote, with the final vote tallies appearing in newspapers the next morning. Champaign’s final vote tally was 2,060 in favor of merging, with 4,842 opposed; Urbana’s results were even more decisive with 1,679 voting in favor of merger and 4,490 voting against it. The proposal to merge Champaign and Urbana was firmly defeated with both towns casting overwhelming votes of “no.” It seems like the most resounding issue was that of cost to the taxpaying citizen. The threat of increased taxes due to the merger led many voters to cast a “no” vote, according to the Pro-Merger committee.
That was pretty much the end of the story for this merger effort, as both sides of the issue accepted the results of the vote without quibble. The committees for or against the merger were dissolved, the yard signs were yanked up and removed, and very quickly all talk of the proposal was put to rest. It remains to be seen if the merger would have actually led to
higher taxes levied upon the towns’ citizens, or if the administrative convenience would have been worth merging the two towns. The people of Urbana and Champaign soundly decided not to risk it in 1953, and the issue would not be raised again until the late 1970s.
Champaign Mayor Virgil Lafferty issued a statement saying the "vote was decided in the good old American way. I am certain Champaign will cooperate with her sister city as it has in the past and more so. The people realize the two towns can operate separately but be like one community to live in." Anti-Mergerite Chair Olin Browder summed up the affair appropriately saying, "We are still separate communities and inseparable friends. This contest has brought Champaign and Urbana much closer together."
For now, the question of the merger had been asked and strongly answered in the negative, and so the sister cities went back to business as usual.