Del Galdo: What's the Secret to Passing Local Referenda in Cook County Suburbs?

October 31, 2014

(Berwyn, IL) - There is a secret to winning voter-approval of referenda in suburban Cook County and elsewhere, according to municipal attorney Michael Del Galdo.

On November 4, Cook County voter will head to the polls 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.

The outcomes of some of these issues will have important consequences, such as whether the Hoover-Schrum School District Number 157 will be able to spend $22.9 million on a new middle school, and others will have less importance, such as whether the Elk Grove Rural Fire Protection District decreases its governing board from 7 to 5 members.

What ties all 43 suburban Cook County referenda together is the desire by their governmental proponents to win voter approval.

What separates local governments is their strategy - or message - embedded in the heart of a referendum question, according to long-time municipal attorney Michael Del Galdo, principal managing partner of the Del Galdo Law Group in Berwyn.

"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, who is the town attorney, among other communities, for the City of Cicero. "A well-formed question means the difference between the success or failure of a referendum at the polls."

Del Galdo, a municipal attorney for 16 years, says the chief culprits of a referendum's demise at the hands of voters are skilled lawyers, burdened by their expertise, who wrote the questions.

"Talented lawyers typically write for other lawyers in a manner that is undecipherable by non-lawyers," said Del Galdo. "In general, when a lawyer writes a referendum question, he writes it to be compliant with the law, but disregards whether an average voter can cut through the pea-soup legal jargon, a circumstance that almost always leads a voter to cast a no vote."

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."

What's in it for me?

For a tax or bond referendum, Del Galdo says that voters must be able to see the concrete benefit, not just the financial terms.

"What the new proposed spending means for the community must - and can be - addressed in a few words and still be compliant with the law," said Del Galdo. "By clearly communicating the benefits to voters rather than just confusing, legal jargon, the referendum's probability for success at the ballot box jumps."

Del Galdo pointed to a November 4 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."

Del Galdo cited the upcoming 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."

Del Galdo compared the two bond referenda between the City of Palos Heights and City of Riverside, noting the difference in 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."

Read the original article at Del Galdo: What’s the Secret to Passing Local Referenda in Cook County Suburbs?