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posted: 12/7/2012 5:30 AM

Arlington Park District cancels poll of 'no' voters

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The Arlington Heights Park District has canceled plans to poll voters about why they voted against the tax increase in November, after conducting an ethics inquiry into the use of public money for such purposes.

A planned $7,200 contract between the park district and Public Research Group was terminated this week after local activist Rob Sherman questioned the use of public money for what could be seen as electioneering.

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"You can't have the government spending tax dollars to ask you how you voted and how they can change your vote in the future," said Sherman, who lives in Buffalo Grove.

Sherman spoke to park district lawyers and submitted a Freedom of Information Request for the contract, which outlined that Public Research Group would start polling "no" voters in early December about why they were against the $39 million bond issue that would have gone to renovate several of the district's major parks.

No park officials returned calls for comment Thursday, but the park district responded Wednesday with a letter that said in part, "Please be advised that this contract was amicably and collaboratively terminated by both parties on Dec. 4."

Sherman said he didn't think the park district was trying to break any rules, just that they didn't know the nuance of election law. He said he was glad to see them quickly terminate the contract with Public Research Group.

"They've made it clear that they want to follow the law," he said.

About 51.5 percent of voters rejected the bond issue in November; only 800 votes separated the yes and no sides. In March, voters rejected a similar $48 million proposal, also by a relatively close margin.

The debate has split the community and even led to outside groups getting involved.

Americans for Prosperity -- a national, issue-based, conservative nonprofit -- made about 7,000 robocalls to Arlington Heights residents the week before the election telling them to vote "no" on the referendum question.

Opponents of the tax increase argued that with the economy still recovering, now was not the time to raise taxes.

If the bond issue had passed, a resident with a $300,000 home would have seen an increase in the property tax payment to the park district of an average of $71 per year over the next 25 years, according to park district calculations.

A group of residents, Arlington Heights People For Our Parks, formed this fall to promote the plan, arguing that the parks need to be updated for the future needs of the community. The parks that would be updated were built either in the 1930s or 1960s.

Going forward the board has a few options, including a third attempt to have voters approve a multimillion-dollar bond issue April 9 during the consolidated municipal elections. The deadline to place a referendum on the April ballot is Jan. 22.

Another possibility is to use all money in the district's bonding authority, which is about $8 million, for renovations, but park board President Maryfran Leno said that would leave the district unable to do any other big projects for another 18 to 20 years.

The park district does have a $2.5 million grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to be used only toward Camelot Park, but the park district needs to either match that grant or lose the money.

The next meeting of the Arlington Heights Park District board does not have any meetings scheduled for the remainder of the year.

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