Daily Herald opinion: Most bodies, but not all, take a measured response to mistake in mental health referendum wording

This editorial is a consensus opinion of the Daily Herald Editorial Board.

When it comes to dealing with apparent confusion in technical language regarding ballot questions for special mental health services, most taxing bodies where suburban voters approved measures last year are comfortable accepting voters' obvious wishes and sorting out the technical questions over time.

These are bodies, like Schaumburg Township, that recognize the urgency and the level of the need, as well as the public's clear desire to address it.

As Schaumburg Township Supervisor Timothy Heneghan told our Steve Zalusky for a story Sunday, "People could challenge (the new services). But with mental health, it seems like there is a need to try to help people. In my mind, I wouldn't think anybody would challenge it."

Apparently, someone would.

The Wheeling Township Board decided last week to put a question on the March ballot that, in essence, township voters answered by a nearly 2,000-vote margin last November, and it's rushing a new referendum to the ballot in what can only be seen as an effort to contradict their wishes.

The November issue was whether a special advocacy body known as a 708 Mental Health Board should be created with limited taxing powers to provide mental health services to township residents who need them.

Similar boards had previously been established by voters of at least three other suburban townships, and in November, voters in six suburban regions joined Wheeling Township in approving the boards.

The Wheeling Township Board, though, was never a big fan of the measure, arguing that the township already allots about $500,000 a year for mental health services. Supporters of the 708 board responded that much more is needed and sought a panel with special taxing authority to manage about $1.5 million. Voters said yes, but when the Wheeling Township attorney discovered a loophole in technical ballot language last August that authorized the board but not its powers to collect revenue, the township board was quick to respond with a call for a whole new election.

This in spite of the fact that state Rep. Dan Didech, a Buffalo Grove Democrat, has proposed legislation, expected to be addressed in this November's veto session, that could correct the error without the need for another vote.

Township leaders have complained that a 708 board could seek a levy of as much as $8 million, though supporters always insisted their goal was only the $1.5 million.

Now, with a straight-faced claim of prioritizing transparency, the township board has approved a new question with the technical language addressed, plus an insertion of the obviously alarming $8 million figure. The new language makes no reference to the actual $1.5 million sought.

Reasonably, supporters asked the board to hold off setting the new referendum at least until the outcome of Didech's initiative is known. If a new vote is required, they asked - again reasonably - that at least it be held in a November general election when a much more representative contingent of township voters is likely to turn out than during a March primary.

The township board disregarded both concerns, preferring to rush a loaded question to a smaller number of voters. This is a sad and unfortunate decision on so many levels, not the least of which is the widely acknowledged demand for mental health services generally and, if nothing else, the critical role gun advocates call for them to play in addressing the nation's gun violence crisis.

Thankfully, other bodies, only one of whose referendums did not share the language problem afflicting Wheeling Township, are taking a more measured approach to the issue. And, hopefully, when Wheeling Township residents are asked to respond to the "more transparent" referendum on a 708 board in March, they will answer as affirmatively as they did last November.

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