Do-over or do nothing? Townships face question over mental health board referendums

Prompted by an apparent flaw in the wording of a 2022 referendum question voters approved to create a community mental health board, Wheeling Township plans to call for a revote on the issue in March.

But several other townships that passed similar measures last year are taking a wait-and-see approach to what comes next.

Schaumburg Township Supervisor Timothy Heneghan said the township is awaiting legal advice on whether to follow Wheeling Township's lead.

"People could challenge it," he said. "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. But it's anybody's right, if they don't think it was worded properly."

Community mental health boards, also known as 708 boards, have emerged as a local solution to address mental health needs. Funded by a separate tax approved by voters through referendum, the appointed board members distribute public money to social service agencies that focus on mental health, substance abuse and developmental disabilities.

Besides Schaumburg and Wheeling townships, measures creating 708 boards passed last year in Addison, Lisle, Naperville and Vernon townships, as well as Will County.

Wheeling Township's November referendum was not initiated by the township board, but rather by a group of mental health advocates who faced opposition from a group that received $25,000 in contributions from billionaire businessman Richard Uihlein of Lake Forest.

This time, the township is taking the lead in placing the question on the ballot.

The Wheeling Township do-over is needed because the earlier question failed to include language about the amount of the tax and its impact on taxpayers, township attorney Kenneth Florey has said.

Without it, the township could face a legal challenge that would force it to issue refunds.

Elgin and Dundee townships faced a similar quandary in 2020, when voters approved establishing 708 boards there. The Kane County clerk's office then refused to collect the taxes, citing flaws in the language of the questions. It took state legislative action in 2022 to solve the issue and allow the boards to begin their work.

Democratic state Rep. Daniel Didech of Buffalo Grove said similar legislation to address the latest uncertainty is on the table for the fall veto session.

The confusion over language - Vernon Township was the exception in including it in its referendum question - indicates there's a fundamental problem with the way the law is written.

"We need to make sure that the statute is a little more easy to understand and easy to implement," he said. "I think it's now clear that what we did (in 2022) was insufficient and we're going to have to put more hand-holding directions into the statute."

Lisle Township Supervisor Diane Hewitt said her township and the others in DuPage that passed 708 boards aren't likely to follow Wheeling Township and go back to the voters.

"We're moving forward," she said. "We're going to levy. We believe that after speaking to five election attorneys that we were covering our bases."

The Wheeling Township board's decision has come under fire from advocacy groups including NAMI Barrington Area, the northwest suburban chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Housing Task Force and the area Advocate for 708 working group.

In a written statement, they said the proposed referendum would offer a second bite at the apple for opponents, "giving them another chance to prevent improved mental health services for the township."

They also raised concerns about putting the referendum on a primary election ballot, with its expected lower turnout and the lack of nonpartisan voters.

They also worry the new language on the ballot will alarm voters. It indicates the new tax could levy as much as $8 million a year, but advocates say they need only about $1.5 million.

They're calling on the township board to cancel the referendum or at least postpone it until the November 2024 general election.

Wheeling Township Supervisor Kathy Penner defended the language of the proposed ballot measure.

"This value just gives transparency to the voters," she said. "We just put a numerical value on the language from the referendum (question) that they had on the ballot last November."

  Wheeling Township voters in November approved the creation of a community mental health board. Now, it seems they'll have to do it all over again in March. Steve Zalusky/, 2022
  Wheeling Township attorney Kenneth Florey listens to public comments Tuesday as the township board votes to put a new mental health board referendum question on the spring ballot. John Starks/
  Wheeling Township Supervisor Kathy Penner listens to public comments Tuesday before the township board votes to put a new mental health referendum question on the spring ballot. John Starks/
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