In a split 2-1 decision, a Madison County electoral board ruled Tuesday that it would review all 9,900 signatures on petitions seeking to place a property tax reduction referendum on the November ballot.
Over the objections of Edwardsville attorney Don Weber, the specially convened board found that it would do a "full binder check" of all the signatures beginning today at 8:30 a.m. in the County Clerk's office.
Weber, who represents parties seeking to get the so-called "blue collar property tax cut" referendum to voters, said that a full binder check was unfair because those who oppose the measure have effectively conceded that 7,000 of the signatures are valid.
"The only ones in controversy are the ones they put in controversy," Weber said, indicating that number was approximately 2,500.
Weber also objected to the short notice given for the review - less than 24 hours - and said that those who will be checking signatures - county clerk employees - may be biased against the validity of the signatures because of their membership in AFSCME, which is opposed to the referendum.
The three member board was created to rule on objections to the validity of nearly a third of the petitions' signatures. Ultimately, it will decide whether the referendum goes to voters or whether it fails to get on the ballot.
Panel members include Madison County Clerk Debra Ming-Mendoza, by statute, and two members who were appointed by Chief Judge Dave Hylla - former associate judge James Hackett and former assistant state's attorney Stephanie Robbins.
Ming-Mendoza and Robbins are Democrats, and Hackett, who voted against the full binder check, is Republican.
The battle over whether voters get to decide to cut their property tax levy by 20 percent is partisan, stemming from an effort led in part by county Treasurer Kurt Prenzler, a Republican, who along with his allies, collected approximately 2,000 signatures more than necessary to get the measure on the ballot.
The petitioners say that for years, the county has over-taxed property owners between $3 and $4 million per year, and as a result the county has a $144 million surplus. They say that there will not be a decrease in funding for law enforcement, as suggested by county Democratic office holders, including Board chairman Alan Dunstan, State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons and Sheriff John Lakin.
Lakin has said his department would lose $600,000 in funding; Gibbons has said his office would lose $200,000.
Prenzler is challenging long-time county government head Dunstan for Madison County chairmanship in the November election.
At Tuesday's hearing, Robbins expressed support for the full binder check, saying, "Let's find out what we have."
She told Weber at the outset that the side he represents enjoys a presumption that the petitions are valid.
"The objectors have the burden of proof," she said.
The board also ruled unanimously that discovery will not be granted to Weber's legal team, saying that election code does not allow parties involved in a ballot access challenge to conduct discovery.
Weber, who said he disagrees with the board's interpretation of election code pertaining discovery, had wanted to find out the motives and bias of those seeking to derail the referendum.
He said he wanted to know what standards and expertise were used to determine that 2,500 signatures gathered were not valid.
He argues in court papers that not allowing such inquiry violates his clients' due process rights.
"The checkers are impermissibly biased against the Blue Collar Tax Cut Petition by virtue of their membership in the AFSCME Union," he wrote. "The Board is using county employees to check the signatures, all of whom are members of the AFSCME Union."
The objectors are Bennett Dickmann, a former police officer, police chief and city administrator, and Richard Gillespie. They are represented by Granite City attorney William Schooley.
Attorney Stephen Wigginton, who represents the electoral board, said that after a signature binder check report is prepared, either side can file exceptions.
The board meets next on June 16.
Schooley's side is required to provide Weber's side with a witness and exhibit list by June 14. Weber must provide his list to Schooley on June 15.
Schooley said that Belleville attorney Garrett Hoerner would be entering an appearance as objectors' co-counsel.