Why Supreme Court's denial of term-limit referendum is a big win for Elk Grove's mayor

  • During Wednesday's town hall meeting, Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson took a victory lap of sorts after the state Supreme Court struck down a term limits referendum that could have removed him from office.

      During Wednesday's town hall meeting, Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson took a victory lap of sorts after the state Supreme Court struck down a term limits referendum that could have removed him from office. Christopher Placek | Staff Photographer

  • Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson on Wednesday lauded an Illinois Supreme Court ruling that tosses a term limits question off the ballot. If approved, it could have removed him from office in 2021.

      Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson on Wednesday lauded an Illinois Supreme Court ruling that tosses a term limits question off the ballot. If approved, it could have removed him from office in 2021. Christopher Placek | Staff Photographer

  • More than 200 residents filled the Elk Grove Village council chambers and an adjoining meeting room for a town hall meeting Wednesday night. Most of the attendees were supporters of Mayor Craig Johnson and current village board members.

      More than 200 residents filled the Elk Grove Village council chambers and an adjoining meeting room for a town hall meeting Wednesday night. Most of the attendees were supporters of Mayor Craig Johnson and current village board members. Christopher Placek | Staff Photographer

  • More than 200 Elk Grove Village residents attended a town hall meeting Wednesday night after the state Supreme Court struck down a term limits referendum -- a decision applauded by many of those in attendance.

      More than 200 Elk Grove Village residents attended a town hall meeting Wednesday night after the state Supreme Court struck down a term limits referendum -- a decision applauded by many of those in attendance. Christopher Placek | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/27/2020 8:39 AM

In a huge victory for long-serving Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson and his supporters, the Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a referendum asking to impose retroactive term limits on him and other village leaders is invalid.

The unanimous decision reverses a Cook County judge's Jan. 15 ruling that found a state law barring retroactive term-limit measures to be unconstitutional. Instead, the high court sided with Elk Grove's electoral board -- and ultimately Gov. J.B. Pritzker -- which upheld an objection to the referendum question on the basis it violated the recently-enacted state law.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Village voters had been set to go to the polls March 17 to vote on the referendum proposed by Tim Burns, a longtime critic of Johnson. It would have asked voters whether the mayor and trustees should be able to serve no more than two consecutive 4-year terms and, if approved, would have barred Johnson and three village trustees from running for reelection in 2021.

Johnson lauded the Supreme Court's ruling during a scheduled town hall meeting Wednesday night at village hall. The event was originally set up by Johnson weeks ago to dispute anonymous robocalls and mailers directed at him since last summer, but the hour-and-a-half meeting attended by more than 200 residents -- many of them supporters -- turned into a victory lap of sorts for the longtime mayor.

"My hope is with the Supreme Court decision, they now go away," Johnson said of the attack ads. "My hope is they've learned their lessons and they've gone away."

Johnson said he thinks term limits as a political philosophy could be good or bad, but he charged his opponents with turning it into "a political tool."

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Ross Secler, an attorney for Burns, wrote in an email Wednesday night that he is disappointed in the result, but respects the judicial process and is exploring any further options.

"Of course, the best term limits can be those that are self-imposed and, given the mayor's conduct and rhetoric throughout this process, we would hope that he exercises that option," Secler said.

Johnson, first elected trustee in 1993 and mayor since 1997, hasn't officially announced if he will seek a seventh term as mayor next year, but indicated he has more work he wants to do.

Cook County Clerk's Office officials confirmed that the term limits question -- even if already printed on ballots -- won't count.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

James Scalzitti, an office spokesman, said there will be poster-type signage in Elk Grove polling places telling voters that the state Supreme Court invalidated the question and votes won't be counted. Election judges will be instructed to give each voter a printed notice stating the same.

Touch screens used for early voting, which is set to begin Monday, already have been programmed with the Elk Grove question. But election officials can program scanners not to count any of those votes, Scalzitti said.

John Fogarty, attorney for the Johnson-backed Committee to Oppose the Retroactive Term Limits Referendum, was surprised by the speed of the court's decision -- less than a week after a deadline for all parties to submit legal briefs -- though he said it's not unusual for the court to expedite election-related cases as voters get ready to head to the polls.

"It has been before them in some fashion or another for a couple weeks," Fogarty said. "I was a little surprised and obviously pleased, but by the same token the court went straight to the heart of the matter."

Since the term limits question would have been a de facto referendum on Johnson and his long-tenured board, the mayor and his supporters spent the last several weeks on what very much was like an election campaign, posting some 1,500 signs in front yards and hosting coffee meetings in homes and local restaurants.

On Tuesday, Johnson's committee launched its first TV commercial on cable news stations -- originally set to run until Election Day -- and was sending a mail piece that would hit Elk Grove mailboxes by the end of the week.

Were the question to have stayed on the ballot, Johnson said it "could have been close" because of the general popularity of term limits. But Johnson and his allies emphasized and branded Burns' proposed referendum as "retroactive."

The strategy may have started to have an effect in voters' minds, and Johnson said he felt "pretty confident" the question would have been defeated at the ballot box.

"From the signs you saw in this community, from the way people were talking, their negative campaign was failing miserably," Johnson said. "The people in this community know me. I was born and raised here and have been mayor for 23 years. They know my record, and I think the people of Elk Grove have a lot of faith in me. But I have to continue to earn their trust every single day."

Burns' group, Concerned Citizens of Elk Grove Village, only put out a few mailers and a robocall, and said they weren't affiliated or coordinating with those behind some two dozen other mailers and robocalls.

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