New state law might scrub Elk Grove term limits referendum

  • The Elk Grove Village board, from left back row, includes trustees Jeffrey Franke, Stephen Schmidt, Sam Lissner and Patton Feichter, and, in the front row, Trustee Nancy Czarnik, Mayor Craig Johnson and Trustee Christine Prochno.

    The Elk Grove Village board, from left back row, includes trustees Jeffrey Franke, Stephen Schmidt, Sam Lissner and Patton Feichter, and, in the front row, Trustee Nancy Czarnik, Mayor Craig Johnson and Trustee Christine Prochno.

 
 
Updated 7/23/2019 8:58 PM

A bill signed last Friday by Gov. J.B. Pritzker may scrub the term limits referendum in Elk Grove Village, but the attorney for the petition drive says the new law is unconstitutional.

That law requires municipal term limits approved anytime after Nov. 8, 2016, to be prospective, not retroactive -- meaning Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson and his long-tenured board of trustees could still run in future local elections.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The ballot question proposed by a group headed by resident Tim Burns would ask voters whether the mayor and village trustees should be able to serve no more than two consecutive 4-year terms. If approved in the March 17, 2020, election, it would take effect with the election in April 2021 and prevent four longtime incumbents -- who already have each served at least two consecutive terms -- from running again.

Johnson on Tuesday applauded the new state law, saying that while he hasn't declared an opinion on the general concept of term limits, he opposes Burns' referendum because it would apply to local officials like himself who are already in office.

"That was one of biggest things I heard from people was why would they make it retroactive," said Johnson, who was elected mayor in 1997. "It's obvious these outsiders wanted us out of office. They couldn't beat us in an election, so they found a back door way to throw us out. But the state saw that was improper."

But Burt Odelson, the prominent Chicago election attorney retained by Burns' group, believes the ballot question would withstand any legal challenges, should objectors bring up the new state law.

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"You can't undo what the people have decided to do, which is a constitutional right -- by referendum they can change their government," Odelson said. "The General Assembly can't take away what the constitution allows them to do."

Objectors to referendums usually point to signatures collected on petitions as being improper, but Odelson is confident he has enough -- 2½ times what was required to get on the ballot.

The state legislation doesn't appear to have any direct connection to the Elk Grove Village referendum drive, but it could be traced back to voter-approved term limits in South suburban towns going back to 2016. One such municipality was Calumet City, where Odelson is the city attorney.

Voters there in November 2016 approved a ballot question that effectively blocked a five-term alderman from running for mayor, a prohibition that would be negated by the new state law.

Meanwhile Odelson says he's pressuring Elk Grove Village's clerk to immediately certify the petitions to the Cook County clerk's office. Technically, Burns had until Dec. 16 to file signatures, and objectors have until Dec. 23 to contest them. But the petition drive started and finished during the Fourth of July weekend, with Burns turning in 276 pages of signatures July 8.

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