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After Referenda Lawsuits, Clearing Up The Confusion

New bill would detail the rules governing complex ballot language — and potentially avoid future legal tiffs.

Now that two lawsuits aiming to invalidate the referenda tax increases in and have been tossed out of Cook County Court, new proposed legislation could clear up the rules for what voters read on ballots at the voting booth.

Rules for ballot language have been unclear about the inclusion of the state’s equalizer, a number applied in Cook County to adjust the county’s assessment level for property taxes. 

For Patch's explainer on limiting rate increases and ballot language — and to see the differences on the impact the state's equalizer would make on property tax bills —  

The omission of the equalizer on ballots facing Oak Park and Wilmette voters was grounds for lawsuits filed by Taxpayers United of America, an anti-tax group claiming the ballot language misled voters about the impact on their property tax bill. Those lawsuits were both dismissed in Cook County court. TUA has since shot back, filing appeals in both cases.

But HB 363, sponsored by state Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Democrat from Summit, and Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, will write the addition of the state equalizer into state law.

Harmon said he believed the existing rules were clear enough and was “flummoxed” to learndidn’t include the figure when drawing up the ballot language, which asked voters to approve property tax increases to save jobs and school programs.

Making it perfectly clear, Harmon said, “was something [the Legislature] should not have to do.”

Board members in Oak Park's District 97 and have said they were simply following the advice of Chapman and Cutler, the Chicago law firm instrumental in crafting ballot language for referenda across Cook County.

Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar, who , calls Chapman and Cutler's counsel "bad advice.”

“For the legal profession, the definition of bad legal advice is when the clients are being sued for the advice they got. That’s what happened in the case of Wilmette and Oak Park,” .

The proposed bill could be passed by the time voters next face referenda questions in early 2012. If it does pass, officials are hoping the clarity will save taxing district across Illinois – schools, park, library, fire protection districts and the like – from getting in the same legal entanglements that led to lawsuits against Oak Park and Wilmette.

"This should provide all taxing districts clearer guidance for all future referendums," said Peter Barber, District 97's school board president.

And school administrators aren't the only ones pleased with the proposed law. Christina Tobin, a co-founder of Taxpayers United of America, called it "a great thing."

"It's unfortunate the legislation happened after we decided to pursue a lawsuit, but that goes to show that a group like TUA, working with taxpayers, we triggered that legislation to take place," she said.

Together, the school districts have spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting TUA's lawsuits. In Oak Park, school officials estimate they've spent around $43,000 on legal fees related to the TUA case. Calculation for legal fees paid by.

Those totals will likely climb as the decisions go under appeal. Tobin said her group will continue to fight, even if the rulings of Cook County Judges Mary Mikva and Rita Novak are upheld in appellate court.

"If we lose we will take it to the Supreme Court," she said. "We're going to take it all the way."

Patch contributor Mariann Devlin contributed to this report. 

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