ROCHELLE — All petitions submitted to the Flagg-Rochelle Community Park District by local residents, in an attempt to prevent the park board from possibly issuing tax bonds to build and equip a community recreation center without a referendum vote, were thrown out by a county Electoral Board on Thursday morning.
Citing state laws that govern the procedures for presenting such petitions, the Electoral Board voted unanimously to sustain two out of three objections against the petitioners because none of the petitions were correctly numbered or bound.
The decision means that all 543 valid signatures submitted on the matter are invalid and the ordinance passed by the park district commissioners in early January is in effect.
In a Jan. 7 special park board meeting, commissioners voted 5-1 in favor of passing an ordinance that would give the district authority to issue up to $14 million in alternate revenue bonds to pay for the construction of a recreation center. However, if at least 526 registered Flagg-Township voters turned in valid petitions, the park district would be forced to hold a referendum vote to gain authority to issue the tax bonds. If fewer than 526 petitions were deemed valid though, then the park board could legally move forward with issuing the alternate revenue tax bonds without voter approval.
A group of Flagg Township residents and registered voters, including John Loggins, Belen Martinez, Thomas Lower, John Forni, Tom McDermott, John Kaminski, Paul Lower, Ronald Fleener, Julia Fleener and Christa Seebach, collected 603 signatures and turned them into the park district office prior to the Feb. 7 deadline where they remained for public review.
Another township resident and registered voter, Richard Ohlinger, filed an objection over the petitions, claiming 114 of the signatures were not valid some were not registered, out of district or ineligible. He also claimed none of the petitions were numbered and none were bound as directed by state statute.
The objection forced county officials to set up an Electoral Board to review and rule on the matter. The board comprised of Ogle County Clerk Laura Cook, Ogle County Circuit Clerk Kim Stahl and Ogle County State’s Attorney Eric Morrow. Byron attorney Doug Floski was named as the administrator and presided over the hearings.
On Thursday morning, the Electoral Board listened to arguments made by both the objector and the petitioners, while each party was given the opportunity to question the other.
Ohlinger’s attorney, Aaron Szeto, addressed the hearing board and focused in on the laws. He pointed to the third paragraph of 10 ILCS 5/28-3 Form of petition for public question, which reads “Such sheets, before being filed with the proper officer or board shall be bound securely and numbered consecutively…”
Szeto also cited several similar case outcomes that demonstrated hearing boards cannot interpret the statutes based on intent, but rather by the letter of the law.
“The Illinois election code gives the requirements the petitions must go through and they have to be numbered and bound,” he said. “It is mandatory and merits on technicality cannot keep the petitions from being invalid.”
McDermott spoke to the Electoral Board and said the petitioners believed the park district staff was responsible for submitting the petitions correctly.
“We weren’t given all the information on how to do it, and we all turned them in and they (park district staff) didn’t number or staple them,” he said.
McDermott also questioned Ohlinger’s motives in filing the objection, based on he is the father-in-law of the park district director. He also suggested Ohlinger might have reason to want the bonds to be issued in hopes his former local bank might be in line to handle some of the bond financing.
Szito objected to the questions on the basis of relevancy and said the issue is only whether or not the petitions were submitted correctly by law. He also suggested that as an elected official McDermott should know that when filing petitions to run for election, the law has to be followed exactly or they are invalid.
“I only need about 15 signatures to run for mayor, so it’s not the same magnitude,” McDermott responded in closing. “The petitioners acted in good faith and I feel that either through ignorance or intent, the park district didn’t handle the petitions correctly and they should not be able to benefit from this. The people of Flagg Township will lose the right to vote and I think that’s wrong.”
“Clearly there is no numbering on any pages, so we contend none of the signatures are valid and it’s not the park district’s responsibility to explain the laws to the petitioners,” Szeto said in his closing.
Following the closing statements, the Electoral Board wasted little time in issuing its decisions on the three objections. The trio overruled Ohlinger’s objection that there weren’t enough registered voters who signed, stating they reviewed and accepted 543 of the 603 signatures.
However, on his other two objections, the Electoral Board sustained both of them and invalidated all the petitions on the basis that the law clearly states the petitions must be numbered and bound prior to being submitted.
“We can’t look at these as technicalities,” Morrow stated. “Whether or not I agree with it, they are mandatory by the law and we have to take that into consideration. This board is bound by statutes and case law and we don’t really have a choice.”
A referendum proposal to issue $14 million in general obligation bonds to build the recreation center will be on the April 2 ballot for Flagg Township residents to vote on, but Thursday’s ruling does leave open the possibility the park board could move forward and issue up to $14 million alternate revenue bonds in the future regardless of the outcome of the referendum.