Congratulations to school District 97 on its referendum victory. I believe the district won the referendum based on the merits of its argument, and not because of misleading information placed on the referendum ballot. Because of the school district's efforts, along with some help from me and the local press, I believe most voters, whether they supported or opposed the referendum, were aware of how much a successful referendum would cost them on their tax bills, notwithstanding the problems on the ballot.
Now that the divisive referendum campaign is over, I believe there are some things all sides can agree on going forward. First, in a functioning democracy, the information on a ballot should be neutral, and should not tip the scales of an election one way or another. Second, no school district should ever again be put in a position of having to explain why the cost of the referendum appearing on the ballot is substantially lower than the cost it is presenting to voters on the referendum campaign trail.
I have begun discussions with Sen. Don Harmon, school District 97 and other school districts, as well as several township assessors, on ways to change the law on referendums. My goal is to see if we can reach agreement on a way to ensure that future referendum ballots include accurate tax estimates, while also addressing other problems associated with the referendum law that came to light as a result of the recent controversy.
Some of the more passionate supporters of the referendum believed that, in pointing out the misleading figure on the ballot, I was trying to undermine the school district. But my record as township assessor belies such a conclusion. I played an active role in recovering $400,000 for District 97 from an erroneous tax refund in 2004, and in 2007 I played a leading role in helping the district obtain funds from the Madison TIF district to avert a financial crisis. Moreover, my time as township assessor has been marked by persistent efforts to provide accurate information to government officials and citizens about tax issues. Pointing out an error on the ballot relating to taxes is completely consistent with that record.
If blame is to be assessed regarding the problem with the ballot, it should be directed at the lawyers who caused the problem, not the tax official who pointed it out. The law requires that the tax estimate on the ballot be the "approximate amount of the additional tax" a single-family house would pay with a successful referendum. Yet the law firm of Chapman and Cutler interpreted this law in a way that understated the impact of the referendum by as much as 70 percent.
The success or failure of a referendum should be based solely on the merits of the argument of the taxing district proposing it. Unfortunately, the bad legal advice provided by Chapman and Cutler put the firm at the forefront of referendum controversies in Oak Park and elsewhere throughout the county. With better legal advice and clearer laws, I am hopeful that lawyers will return to their proper "behind the scenes" role in future elections.
Ali ElSaffar is the Oak Park Township assessor.