Referenda Provide The “Public Voice” Everyone Needs To Hear


Tonight’s Park Ridge City Council meeting has two significant issues on the agenda: (1) final approval of the language of the binding Library tax levy increase referendum; and (2) further discussion of an advisory referendum for flood remediation for Mayfield Estates and the Northwest Park neighborhood.

The simplistic view, seemingly shared by more than a few residents, is that these are just individual one-off decisions about the Library and a couple of Second Ward flood projects. Worse yet, these are nothing more than attempts by the Council to pawn off on the voters tough decisions on two very different issues, with the victory or defeat of each being the only consequence.

The real take-away from these two exercises should be how they enhance our City’s representative (i.e., republican with a small “r”) form of government. Both of these referenda demonstrate how giving the taxpayers a voice on major issues in the most objectively measurable way – through their countable votes – actually adds even greater transparency, accountability and legitimacy to the process.

Let’s start with the Library referendum, which was initiated by the City Council because the Library (i.e., senior Staff’s and Library Board majority’s) refused to live within its statutory taxing authority. Rather than propose a tax increase referendum, however, the Library administration chose to demonize the Council for ignoring the will of what it claimed to be the vast majority of residents who purportedly wanted more City funding of the Library. And when that didn’t cause a majority of the aldermen to cower and buckle, the Library amped up the pressure by intentionally and irresponsibly inflicting gratuitous pain on Library users and its own staff by closing the Library on 14 Sundays this summer.

But thanks to the Council, this Library referendum will give all taxpayers who choose to vote this November the chance to tell the Council(and the Library administration) in no uncertain terms whether they are willing to pay higher taxes for certain Library amenities. And because it will be a binding referendum, even the slimmest-majority – 50.00001% of the vote – will give the Library the extra cash it wants for each of the next four years, without having to sway a Council majority on that issue.

So although the Council said “no” to the Library, it was willing to give the Library – and the voters – a chance to prove a majority of aldermen wrong. And even if a majority of voters say “no,” the Council still has the ability to reconsider and give the Library more money, albeit without any illusion that such a handout is what a majority of voting taxpayers wants.

What could possibly be wrong with that?

That is representative/republican government in action, in one of the ways Madison described in Federalist No. 10:

[T]o refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

Whether the referendum passes or fails, the Council will have the benefit of having heard the “public voice…pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.”

While a Library referendum will be on the November ballot, the mere thought of obtaining a similar “public voice” on flood control for Mayfield Estates and the Northwest Park neighborhood seems to have inspired fear and loathing from the residents of those areas.

Like the Library administration, those Second Ward folks would prefer to browbeat the Council into simply handing over $20 Million in bond proceeds, plus interest, for flood protection for less than 450 homes – even though that $20 Million figure is “soft” because no “hard” cost for turning Northwest Park into a temporary detention area (assuming the Park District will permit it) has been determined.  And as is so often the case when a small group of people claim entitlement to Other People’s Money (“OPM”) for their own personal benefit, those Second Ward folks are insisting that a referendum would be “divisive” and pit one area of town against the others.

That’s what’s known as the pot calling the kettle black. Or, in this case, the takers calling the payers “cheap.”

Whether by selective blindness or outright dishonesty, those Second Ward folks fail to see that THEY are the ones creating an “us v. them” mentality – if one exists – by demanding that all the City’s taxpayers foot the bill for Second Ward flood relief projects costing (in the case of Mayfield Estates) more than TEN TIMES what flood relief for other parts of town is costing ($100,000+ per home v. relief sewers at a cost of approximately $10,000 per home).

Ald. Nick Milissis (2nd), with the help of an analysis by municipal finance expert and resident Shawn O’Leary, has come up with a variety of arguments for why no referendum should be required by the City to take another plunge into the deep end of the debt pool – and the sooner, the better. And, not surprisingly, those arguments purport to demonstrate that adding another $20 Million of bonded debt to the current $30 Million carried by the City won’t have any effect on the City’s bond rating or on future flood relief projects for all those other areas of town experiencing flooding.

We vigorously disagree. But that’s not the point of this post.

If those arguments are legitimate and not just a bunch of municipal finance mumbo jumbo, can’t the taxpayers be trusted embrace them – via an advisory referendum vote? Shouldn’t those taxpayers who choose to vote have a chance to voice their opinion on whether they want the City saddled with another $20 Million of long-term debt, especially when it will provide flood relief to no more than 450 of the City’s 13,000-plus households?

And if this $20 Million of additional bonded debt truly is the great idea its proponents are proclaiming it to be, persuading the voters should be an easy task.  Heck, from the way Mr. O’Leary talks up such debt (“I am…astonished that any city with significant capital needs is not jumping at the opportunity to take advantage of this rate environment”), why aren’t he and Ald. Milissis advocating for $150-300 Million of bonded debt to address ALL the City’s flooding issues – before the rates go up and/or” our bond rating falls any further from its already-downgraded Aa2, with a negative outlook, thanks in large part to the Uptown TIF?

Thomas Jefferson noted that “[w]henever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”  So let Ald. Milissis, Mr. O’Leary and their fellow Second Ward residents inform the rest of us about the abiding wisdom of the Mayfield Estates and Northwest Park flood relief plans.

And then let the “public voice…pronounced by the people themselves” be heard via an advisory referendum this November.

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