Term limit push in Elk Grove Village could end mayor's long run

Organizers of a weekend petition drive in Elk Grove Village say they collected 2½ times the number of signatures needed to get a question on the March 2020 primary election ballot asking voters to approve term limits for village leaders.

If those 276 pages of signatures go unchallenged and the Cook County clerk's office certifies them, the binding ballot question could act as a de facto referendum on the longtime mayor and village trustees - known for having one of the longest streaks of continuity in the suburbs.

"In general, people favor term limits in not having the same old, same old in government," said Burt Odelson, the prominent Chicago election attorney retained by the group headed by Elk Grove Village resident Tim Burns. "It's just good for a municipality or any unit of government to have some changeover to breathe new life into the government."

The referendum question would ask voters whether the mayor and village trustees should be able to serve no more than two consecutive 4-year terms. If approved, it would take effect with the 2021 election and bar four incumbents - including Mayor Craig Johnson - from seeking reelection at that time.

Des Plaines and Rolling Meadows enacted term limits in the 1990s through requests approved by voters. Elected officials in Des Plaines are barred from serving more than two consecutive terms.

The same applies for the mayor of Rolling Meadows, while aldermen there are limited to three consecutive terms. However, the Rolling Meadows City Council agreed to place a binding question on the 2020 primary ballot to ask voters if aldermen should also be held to the two-term standard.

Burns' group dispatched petition gatherers across Elk Grove over the Fourth of July weekend, collecting signatures at the July 4 Melissa Etheridge concert and fireworks, in shopping center parking lots and door to door. On Monday, Burns submitted the petitions to the Elk Grove Village clerk's office.

Odelson said such a quick turnaround ensured the mayor and board wouldn't have enough time to try to knock the term limits question off the ballot before it even got on. He says the board could have called a special meeting and legally voted to place three other questions on the ballot, not leaving space for the citizen ballot initiative.

"This has been in the works for a number of months, getting everything together, doing it over the holiday weekend, to best use the element of surprise and avoid a special meeting, and it worked well," he said.

Burns, a former Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 school board member and Elk Grove Village library trustee, is a Johnson critic who lost a race for village board in 2011. He referred questions about the petition drive to Odelson.

Johnson, the mayor since 1997, called Burns a "shill" for outsiders seeking to have an influence in Elk Grove. Johnson said he spoke to petition-passers who admitted they weren't from Elk Grove and were being paid to gather signatures.

Odelson responded that a quarter of those collecting signatures were paid for their time, but it's a legal and common practice.

Johnson said many residents are pleased with the way village government is run, pointing to the recent April election results. Three-decade incumbent Nancy Czarnik and 24-year incumbent Sam Lissner were reelected, joined on the panel by newcomer Stephen Schmidt, the former police chief who retired in 2016 after 41 years with the department.

"When Des Plaines and Rolling Meadows did it, it was a groundswell of disenchantment within the community. This didn't occur here," Johnson said. "But it's not like it's a done deal. People still have to vote on it. The key is going to be educating people: Are you happy in Elk Grove and what the board is doing and the way the community is going?

"It's almost like an election. It may be a referendum on the mayor and board. And so be it."

Tim Burns
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