There’s an article in the print edition of the Journal Star today that I can’t find online. The headline is “Peoria County tosses ‘Block the Bonds’ petition,” with a subhead, “County Clerk rules Citizens for Responsible Spending failed to comply with Election Code.” Here’s what it says:
There will be no referendum on the issue of the bonds to pay for construction of the Peoria Riverfront Museum.
On Friday, Peoria County Clerk Steve Sonnemaker ruled the petitions filed to place the question on the ballot to be in “nonconformity of the Election Code.”
About 1,700 signatures were filed with the Peoria county Clerk’s Office on Monday requesting a referendum, far short of the 9,849 signatures the Citizens for Responsible Spending needed to withstand challenges to getting a question on the February or April ballots in Peoria County.
In a news release, Sonnemaker said the petitions “on their face, lack the required number of signatures and, therefore, do not comply with the Election Code.”
“The change in policy at this time is due to recent court cases that appear to require that the clerk has a duty to examine petitions to determine whether upon their face they are in apparent conformity with the Election Code. The State’s Attorney has this week addressed these court cases in a letter to the county clerk and advised that the clerk should examine for apparent conformity of the petitions based on the requirements of the Election Code and therefore, no referendum issue should be placed on the ballot,” the release states.
“Previously the clerk did not examine petitions for apparent conformity but relied on petition challenges that would be resolved by a three member Electoral Board as in keeping with policy set by the State Board of Elections.”
But Sonnemaker also said, “any action taken by the county clerk regarding petition conformity may be subject to challenge.”
Citizens for Responsible Spending mounted a monthlong petition drive aimed at halting the issuance of $41.6 [sic] million in bonds to help pay for the construction of the $140 million museum project shortly after the City Council and County Board approved redevelopment agreements allowing for construction to commence.
The group also was concerned that the project’s scope has changed since voters endorsed an April 2009 referendum, pumping $40 million of local sales taxes into the project. Some examples of the changes included the possibility an IMAX-brand theater might not be part of the project, the use of general obligation bonds to finance the project instead of revenue bonds and that state grants to move forward with construction have not yet been received.
The relevant statute is 10 ILCS 5/10-8, which states in part, “petitions to submit public questions to a referendum, being filed as required by this Code, and being in apparent conformity with the provisions of this Act, shall be deemed to be valid unless objection thereto is duly made in writing within 5 business days after the last day for filing the … petition for a public question.”
In court cases People ex rel. Giese v. Dillon (1914), North v. Hinkle (1998), and Haymore v. Orr (2008), Illinois courts have consistently found that the County Clerk has the authority to make certain judgments about whether petitions are “in apparent conformity with the provisions of [the] Act.” One of those judgments has to do with whether enough signatures have been gathered. The Haymore decision states:
[T]he Illinois Supreme Court explained that the responsibility for determining whether an election petition apparently conforms to the law rests with the town clerk. Dillon, 266 Ill. at 275-76. Specifically, the clerk’s duty is “to determine whether, upon the face of the petition, it is in compliance with the law.” Dillon, 266 Ill. at 276. If the petition on its face appears to comply with the statutory requisites, the clerk may not look outside the petition to determine whether in fact it does comply; he must submit the question to the voters.
For example, the Clerk cannot determine on the face of a petition whether the signatures are valid, or whether the person circulating the petitions met the legal requirements to do so.
However, the court continued, had the petition not appeared on its face to have complied with the statutory requisites, the clerk would have had no duty to submit the question to the voters. Dillon, 266 Ill. at 276. For example, by examining the face of the petition, a clerk can determine whether it contains the requisite number of signatures. Dillon, 266 Ill. at 276. If it does not, the petition is not in apparent conformity with the election statutes and the clerk has no duty to certify the question for the ballot. Dillon, 266 Ill. at 276.
So, based on that case law, the State’s Attorney has apparently instructed the County Clerk to throw out the petitions. It’s really a moot point because the petitions couldn’t withstand a challenge anyway. Still, it’s interesting that this is apparently the first time the Peoria County Clerk has made this kind of decision, since the State’s Attorney had to tell him to do it, and the Clerk felt it necessary to publish a press release about it.