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Del Galdo: 2014 Cook Election Results Show Clear Referenda Questions Are Vote Getters

Municipal attorney Michael Del Galdo predicted that 2014 suburban Cook County referendum would fare better if clearly written. He was right.

Cook County voters went to the polls on November 4 to cast ballots not only for governor, state lawmakers, and county commissioners but also for 43 county and suburban referendum on a variety of public policy issues, such as term limits for local officials, property tax increases, school construction bonds, medical marijuana zoning, O'Hare Airport flight noise, and other issues.

Municipal attorney Michael Del Galdo predicted that 2014 suburban Cook County referendum would fare better if clearly written. He was right.

Cook County voters went to the polls on November 4 to cast ballots not only for governor, state lawmakers, and county commissioners but also for 43 county and suburban referendum on a variety of public policy issues, such as term limits for local officials, property tax increases, school construction bonds, medical marijuana zoning, O'Hare Airport flight noise, and other issues.

Leading up to the election, in a October 29 Chicago Tribune "from the community" article, "What's the Secret to Passing Referenda in Cook County Suburbs?", Del Galdo, the principal managing partner of the Del Galdo Law Group in Berwyn, cited examples of Cook County suburban municipal ballot referendum whose dense legal mumbo jumbo would likely challenge voters - and election returns bore out his prediction.

In the October 29 story, Del Galdo pointed to a referendum by Westchester School District #92 ½ as one being entangled in legal complexity without a corresponding description of benefits for voters:

"Shall the limiting rate under the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law for Westchester School District Number 92 1/2, Cook County, Illinois, be increased by an additional amount equal to 0.55% above the limiting rate for school purposes for the levy year 2013 and be equal to 3.39% of the equalized assessed value of the taxable property therein for levy year 2014? 1) The approximate amount of taxes extendable at the most recently extended limiting rate is $10,662,404.52, and the approximate amount of taxes extendable if the proposition is approved is $12,727,306.81. 2) For the 2014 levy year the approximate amount of the additional tax extendable against property containing a single family residence and having a fair market value at the time of the referendum of $100,000 is estimated to be $146.42. 3) If the proposition is approved, the aggregate extension for 2014 will be determined by the limiting rate set forth in the proposition, rather than the otherwise applicable limiting rate calculated under the provisions of the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law (commonly known as the Property Tax Cap Law)."

"This is a perfectly fine piece of precise legal writing - for other lawyers," said Del Galdo. "But voters will warily wade through it and will likely be befuddled about what it means for them beyond an additional $2.1 million in extra taxes and breaking the property tax cap law."

In contrast, Del Galdo cited a Palatine Rural Fire Protection District referendum as a well written tax question:

- "Shall the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District levy a special tax at a rate not to exceed .05% of the value of all taxable property within the district as equalized or assessed by the Department of Revenue for the purpose of providing funds to pay for the costs of emergency and rescue crews and equipment?"

"The Palatine Rural Fire Protection District is clearly communicating benefits in this question - emergency costs, rescue crews, and equipment," said Del Galdo. "It's well done."

Voters approved the Westchester school district 54.27-45.73. The Palatine question won 58.26-41.74%.

"A well-formed question means the difference between the success or failure of a referendum at the polls," said Del Galdo, who is the town attorney, among other communities, for the City of Cicero. "In this case, both referenda won, but the Palatine referendum had the stronger margin, and it's clarity helped. No doubt."

Del Galdo argues that "plain English" should be the standard used by lawyers when writing referendum questions, noting "Plain English for Lawyers", a book written by attorney Richard Wydick, has represented a prominent school of thought on legal communication.

"Referendum questions should be written in plain English and can be written in plain English and still be compliant with the law," Del Galdo said. "Attorney Richard Wydick's book on plain English has been an important touchstone."

Del Galdo had also compared the two bond referenda between the City of Palos Heights and City of Riverside, noting the difference in the presentation of interest rate citations:

- "Shall bonds in the amount of $6,300,000.00 be issued by the City of Palos Heights, Cook County, Illinois, for the purpose of renovating existing recreation facilities and build an addition thererto, bearing interest at the rate not to exceed the greater of 9% per annum or 125% of the rate for the most recent date shown in the 20 G.O. Bonds Index of average municipal bond yields as published in the most recent edition of The Bond Buyer, published in New York, New York, at the time the contract is made for the sale of said bonds?"

- "Shall the Village of Riverside, Cook County, Illinois, for the purpose of making road and street improvements within the Village, issue bonds to the amount of $2,500,000 for the purpose of paying the costs thereof? The maximum rate of interest on the bonds to be issued pursuant to said proposition is 5% per annum."

"The Palos question cites the 9% per year bond rate cost - or - "125% of the rate for the most recent date shown in the 20 G.O. Bonds Index", and the problem is that the "125%" number may hit voters with sticker shock," said Del Galdo. "The rules governing the Palos bond issue may require the 125% cost option, but I'll tell you Riverside referendum, which cites only the 5% per year bond cost, is far more voter friendly."

The Palos referendum won 61.96-38.04%. But the Riverside ballot measure romped: 76.99%-23.01%.

"Given that municipalities, school districts, and other taxing bodies are prohibited from spending tax payer money in support of a referendum, forming the referendum question is the single most important decision that a governing board can make," said Del Galdo. "These results reaffirm that strategy: write a clear question."

davidormsby@davidormsby.com

Read the original article at Aurora set to decide on zoning for marijuana facility requests