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updated: 1/24/2012 6:05 PM

Judge rules Naperville smart meter referendum off ballot

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A Naperville group suffered a potentially fatal blow Tuesday to its efforts to place an advisory referendum concerning smart meters on the March 20 ballot.

DuPage Judge Bonnie Wheaton ruled that the Naperville Electoral Board made the correct decision in denying the referendum a place on the ballot. The petitioners, she agreed, lacked the required number of signatures of registered Naperville voters to validate the question.

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"This is an unusual case and I have no doubt the petitioners circulated in good faith," Wheaton said before issuing her ruling. "But Illinois election law regulates that only registered voters be allowed to sign a petition to place a proposition on the ballot."

According to the electoral board's Jan. 19 ruling, 3,758 signatures of registered voters were required. Petitioners submitted 4,199, but board members disqualified 565 of them because they were not from registered voters.

The anti-smart meter group, which opposes the use of wireless meters to track electricity use, attempted to ask voters, "Shall the City of Naperville immediately and permanently stop the implementation of the $22 million smart meter project and dismantle all related equipment?"

Resident William Dawe filed an objection to the referendum petitions on Dec. 27, alleging they contained signatures from people living outside Naperville and that the proposal contains a two-part question, both of which make it invalid.

Following Wheaton's ruling the anti-smart meter group, represented by attorney Doug Ibendahl, mulled appealing the decision in appellate court.

"There was new law made here today. The bar has been lowered so there's precedent now that electoral boards in the future can get together in secret and invalidate signatures. That's new," Ibendahl said outside the courtroom. "We always thought from the beginning that we would have to get out of DuPage County before we get a fair hearing on this thing. That's unfortunate. This is the easiest case I've ever seen in election law. It's unfortunate the judge didn't agree."

City attorney Margo Ely, who presided over the election board hearing, said the ruling was what she expected.

"The judge reviewed the record very diligently and very expeditiously and rendered an opinion that was thoughtful," Ely said. "She concluded the electoral board made the right decision based on the evidence presented."

Outside the courtroom, however, petitioners also raised concerns over an email they believe was improperly sent by a city employee just hours after they filed their referendum petitions with the city. The email seems to show employees already discussing how they could question the validity of the petitions.

On 6:48 p.m. on Nov, 15, within hours of the group's filing, a city employee sent an email to fellow employees, including Ely, that read "Perhaps the Ambassadors (supporters of the smart grid proposal) would be interested in verifying/challenging the petition signatures. For political candidacies, if there is one invalid signature, the entire notarized page is challenged and potentially removed. Not sure if the same rules would apply for a referendum."

Wheaton discounted the email in her ruling and Ely also brushed it off, but Naperville Smart Meter Awareness Group member Tom Glass said he hopes to launch an investigation into whether the city plotted to kill the referendum question.

"I personally have drafted a letter that's going to the state's attorney and the U.S. attorney asking for an investigation into the happenings here," Glass said. "It's unbelievable that voters are disenfranchised like this. They are setting a precedent that people are going to go out and collect signatures only to be fought with their own tax dollars."

The long-running debate centers on the use of wireless smart meters that the city began installing earlier this month.

The city maintains the initiative is a safe upgrade to its $360 million electric network to provide more efficient, cost-effective and reliable service to customers. The plan's critics say they are concerned about the long-term health risks associated with the wireless RF meters and the safety concerns associated with connecting to a wireless network.

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