By Terry Dean
An anti-tax group based in Illinois is joining with an Oak Park resident who opposed District 97's April 5 referendum in filing a lawsuit against the school district concerning its ballot measure.
Taxpayers United of America will file the suit with the Cook County Circuit Court. Oak Park resident Noel Kuriakos, a leading opponent of the referendum, will be a plaintiff in the suit. Kuriakos confirmed his involvement in the suit last Friday with Wednesday Journal. His group, Citizens Alliance of Oak Park, formed early this spring to oppose the district's rate hike referendum, which recently passed.
The suit will be filed by Friday April 22, said Christina Tobin, vice president of Taxpayers United of America. The basis for the suit is the ballot language itself, which came under scrutiny weeks before the election. Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar, after studying the wording, maintained that the ballot wording understated how much property owners would actually pay in added taxes. ElSaffar is also president of the Cook County Township Assessors Association.
Kuriakos argues that the D97 school board was aware of that fact before approving the ballot wording, following the advice of its law firm, Chapman and Cutler, in allowing the potentially misleading language.
"The firm advised them to do this, and the board pushed back in questioning the accuracy of the ballot question, and the firm pushed back again and said this is the language that they should use," Kuriakos said. "Clearly, this is a strong indicator for us to move forward with the suit."
Tobin added that it was premature to talk about what the suit is looking to achieve because her group's attorney is still working on it. But she believes the suit has merit and will be successful.
Peter Traczyk, president of the school board, told Wednesday Journal that he was unaware of the pending suit until the paper contacted him about it.
"Anyone can bring a suit, but it doesn't mean that it has merit," he said.
D97's $6 million referendum won handily on April 5 by a 55 to 45 percent margin, or by a little more than 1,000 votes. But weeks before the election, an Oak Park resident unaffiliated with Kuriakos or his group questioned the actual ballot language. That resident contacted Wednesday Journal, which then contacted ElSaffar, who reviewed the ballot question and found that it understated the referendum's impact by a factor of three. The problem, he said, was not factoring in the state equalizer, which is used in the formula to calculate tax bills. Nearly a dozen other government agencies seeking a tax increase in the April 5 election used this same formula.
Chapman and Cutler, though, maintained that the equalizer was not included because it's not required, based on the state law governing how referendums should be written. The statute also includes a "safety clause" concerning possible errors that might appear on the ballot that are unintentional.
Traczyk said he believes the district is protected by the safety clause. Tobin, however, isn't sure.
"If they are confident that it was done unintentionally, then I am confident that it was definitely done intentionally," she said. "The ballot didn't tell the truth, and ... this suit is to make sure that misprints don't happen in the future."
Taxpayers United of America was founded in 1976 and was previously known as National Taxpayers United of Illinois. The recent name change coincides with the group's national expansion, Tobin said. The nonprofit has long opposed local, state and federal tax increases.