Lisle-inspired law could be 'anti-democratic,' group complains

Updated 8/27/2011 8:51 AM

A local government watchdog group says a new state law inspired by a zoning debate in Lisle has the potential of "justifying anti-democratic procedures" during public hearings.

But the state lawmaker who sponsored the measure insists it won't remove the rights of citizens.


Gov. Pat Quinn this week signed the legislation, which allows municipalities with less than 500,000 people to adopt their own public hearing rules for zoning cases.

Those procedures could deal with the rights of participants to cross-examine witnesses and present evidence during a public hearing.

"It really boils down to efficiency," said Annie Thompson, the governor's spokeswoman. "The governor believes in getting the people's business done in a manner that's open and transparent but also in a manner that's efficient. This bill will help (local) governments do that."

State Rep. Darlene Senger of Naperville said she proposed the legislation in response to the marathon public hearings that happened when Navistar submitted plans to move its headquarters to Lisle.

At one point, Navistar withdrew from a zoning hearing over complaints about the process allowing opponents to subpoena company officials to testify.

The company eventually decided to proceed with the relocation after state officials intervened and negotiated a settlement between Navistar and its foes.

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Senger said the controversy made it clear that towns should have zoning hearing rules in place to avoid "difficult" and "messy" situations.

"If you don't have rules in place, watch out," she said. "You could run into some problems."

Initially, Senger's proposal would have prevented residents from being considered an "interested party" during a zoning hearing unless they're required to be notified by mail of the hearing. It also included criteria for when a subpoena could be issued.

That language was stripped out of the measure before it became law.

"It's not being specific," Senger said. "It's letting each municipality customize its own procedures."

However, officials with the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center say the law is "problematic."

"This bill allows municipalities that are interested in severely restricting who can participate in the process -- under the guise of efficiency -- to institute undemocratic and unfair rules," said Terry Pastika, the center's executive director. "When you think about the anti-democratic rules it could justify, it's a big problem."


Senger disagrees, adding the law doesn't undermine a landmark court ruling that gives residents greater say at public hearings on development issues in their communities.

"Klaeren is still there," said Senger, referring to the 1999 case where the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in favor of Robert Klaeren and three other Lisle residents trying to stop construction of a Meijer department store near their neighborhood.

Still, Pastika is predicting the new law is going to cause "more litigation based on questionable rules or procedure."

"When you look at who this bill affects, it affects the minuscule amount of the population that actually cares enough about a meeting to show up," Pastika said. "That's why legislation like this is so offensive."