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updated: 1/20/2013 8:22 AM

Editorial: Petition approval is matter of respect for voters

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Bill Gnech collected 2,700 signatures, 300 more than enough, but in the end it didn't matter.

The Arlington Heights man believes his mayor and trustees should serve a maximum of eight years and then leave their offices, forever. He wants residents to vote on a referendum in April to make it law. But he bungled the question on his petitions badly enough that it was easy for the Arlington Heights electoral board last week to reject it. In fact, the board didn't really have a choice.

It's Gnech's own fault, of course. He spent days and weeks collecting signatures, but didn't get his question vetted by an expert, presumably a lawyer, to make sure it would pass muster. So, the question of whether Arlington Heights should adopt term limits would be dead for the coming election, except it's not. The village board could put the referendum on the April 9 ballot themselves, if it acts by Tuesday.

Lunacy? Many local officials probably think so, since those who don't support term limits know they dodged a bullet when Gnech failed.

The Daily Herald has generally dismissed term limits proposals, and while we haven't studied this one in depth, our inclination would be to oppose it, especially with Gnech's call for a lifetime ban once an official has eight years in office. We believe that in most cases, elections are an ample check on would-be lifetime public servants.

But there's a deeper issue here. Gnech's exercise demonstrated that people in Arlington Heights are interested in the question of term limits. He got 2,700 signatures this time, and even more if you count the first petition he circulated that he tore up because it was more badly worded than the current one.

We believe in the spirit behind the rules of democracy. Yes, making a significant change in the structure of village government should be difficult. No village board should put a referendum on the ballot just because somebody worked really hard. It should do so only when enough people demonstrate they want to vote an issue up or down.

It's a fact of electoral life that when it comes to citizen-based initiatives, any of them can be shot down for bad stapling, incorrect numbering or a variety of other horrors that ignore the spirit of what is being proposed. It's that spirit, really, that any suburb considering an appeal from its citizens should respect, and that Arlington Heights, where officials had ample opportunities to warn Gnech of his technical errors while he still had time to repair them, has violated.

It's a good thing for homeowners and business owners the same rules do not apply to building permits -- if every person who brought in a faulty or incomplete permit was sent away empty-handed, a lot of decks, garages and store additions would never get built. But that's not the way villages generally work with their citizens, and it shouldn't be so here. By taking action themselves, even in the case of an unwelcome referendum, suburban officials can demonstrate they respect voters, rather than fear them.

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