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.

To read or post comments, click on title.

13 comments so far

This will offend those who think any referendum can be extrapolated into “government by referendum,” but you are right. Finding out what the voters think on big or expensive issues aids representative government, not detracts from it.

Anytime somebody wants something that they don’t think is acceptable to a majority, they avoid and badmouth referendums. It sounds like that’s what is happening on 2nd Ward flood control.

You are against everything that is intended to help people or make life better in this town. You raged against the Centennial Aquatic Center, you’re trying to destroy the Library, and you have no compassion for the people who live in fear every time it rains. Why don’t you just pick up and move?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Picking up and moving is what the freeloaders do…but only AFTER they’ve sucked as many taxpayer dollars out of the community they can (e.g., paying $4,000 of taxes to D-64 for one – or several – $13,000+/year D-64 educations).

We “raged against” the Centennial water park solely because the arrogant and cowardly Park Board wouldn’t hold a referendum and run the risk that the voters would say “no.” And this editor was one of 3 Library Board members who fought to keep the Library open summer Sundays while Staff and the Board majority callously shut it down to make a political point.

And we have plenty of “compassion” for flood victims…all over town. But we’re not about to advocate or excuse what amounts to stealing around $100,000+ from all the City’s taxpayers in order to provide flood relief for each Mayfield Estates home, or $40,000 for each Northwest Park home – especially when the average resident is getting around $9,000 worth of relief sewers, assuming he/she is actually getting relief sewers.


Do you know if after the CC is finished with closed session agenda items, the reconvene in open session to adjourn? I never see this on the video. Is this occurring and it’s just not put on the video or have they been violating the open meetings act this whole time?

EDITOR’S NOTE: We believe they are supposed to adjourn closed and reconvene open before adjourning the open. And we believe there are enough IOMA-knowledgable aldermen that they are doing it “according to Hoyle” – even if somebody forgets about re-starting the video. But the minutes should show it.

I’m less enthusiastic about referenda than is the editor of this blog. The aldermen get paid the big bucks to make governing decisions. In most instances, they should actually earn their pay by making the hard decisions. Referenda are not the only means of discovering public opinion. There are no elected officials in Park Ridge who would not listen to a resident who shared his opinion. Residents who care strongly about an issue are invited to each City Council to give voice to his opinions. I’ve never met an alderman who refused to read any letter I might send him. Strictly speaking, referenda are not necessary to gauge public opinion.

But, sometimes, a referendum makes sense. I would argue the upcoming Library referendum is an example of such. The City Council has decided how much to spend on the Park Ridge Public Library. And the Library management believes the residents of Park Ridge are willing to have their taxes increased in order to spend more on the Library. The upcoming vote in November will make it clear whether or not the Library management is correct.

While conceding that sometimes referenda have their utility, sometimes referenda questions become the goal, in and of themselves, without regard to whether or not the referendum question provides informed or useful resident feedback. A bad referendum question is more destructive than NO referendum question at all. Putting a sloppy referendum question on the ballot for no other purpose than to get said question on the ballot is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. It is bad government.

I attended the City Council meeting on June 16th where the aldermen discussed potential questions that might appear on a referendum. I didn’t hear any “potential” question being discussed that would make sense on a ballot. Indeed, some referenda questions might risk confusing issues and costing taxpayers additional money. Of the two major flood control projects being seriously considered, both are waiting for action by other governmental bodies. A referendum on either the Northwest Park project or Mayfield Estates would achieve nothing other than delay and probably increased costs. One of the proposed referendum questions discussed by the Council was whether the taxpayers wanted to create something that might be called a Flood Control Commission which would spend an unknown amount of dollars on unknown projects over an unknown period of time. A truly frugal alderman would have made a dash for his Kaopectate.

I respect the editor of this blog and I admire PublicWatchDog. But, if PubDog is serious about getting some sort of flood control referendum question on a ballot, I urge him to compose a reasonable question that might be serviceable. Right now, I can’t think of one. And the City Council didn’t come close to doing so on Monday.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We agree that elected officials “should actually earn their pay by making hard decisions.” But NO elected official, no matter how diligent he/she might be in gathering public opinion, will be able to get the breadth of input that a referendum presents, even if only on one question. And surveys generally are orchestrated propaganda, sampling only a small fraction of the responses a referendum gets.

This editor believes that the extraordinary costs, and long-term debt, of the Northwest Park flood remediation, and even more so the Mayfield Estates one, demand the kind of public input an advisory referendum provides. As we understand it, the proponents of these two projects want them treated as a single unit, which makes the question easy:

“Should the City of Park Ridge issue up to $20 million of bonds to fund the $3.3 million Mayfield Estates flood control project and the $16 million Northwest Park flood control project?”

Now, how tough was that?

“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”

Can you provide examples of this supposed demonetization? I know you know what it is cause you’ve exercise it regularly in regards to library staff on this very blog. But I’m just curious how the library board demonized the council.

For example, this response you gave to a comment on this post:

“And this editor was one of 3 Library Board members who fought to keep the Library open summer Sundays while Staff and the Board majority callously shut it down to make a political point.”

I keep telling you that “Staff” had no say in the decision and were not happy about it. So you need to stop blaming Staff every time you want to make a point. Talk about demonizing people. You’re the king of that rhetoric.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ms. Enright, welcome back.

The demonization of the City Council by the Library Board majority has been recounted in various posts such as the 04.14.14 one – where various Board members’ sole goal was to get the public to blame the Council for the Library’s travails.

As for your contention that Staff “had no say in the decision [to close the Library on summer Sundays] and were not happy about it,” where were you and your fellow Staff members when the Library Board was addressing this issue? For someone as outspoken and opinionated as you seem to be, why didn’t you show up at any Library Board meetings and express your unhappiness?

It would have taken less time than you’ve spent writing comments to posts on this blog!

Oh Pub Dog, your referendum question in response to Mr. Godfrey’s post is so delightfully straightforward that it will never happen. Referendum questions have to be so convoluted that no one can possibly make sense of them. Didn’t they teach that at Watchdog School??

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Advisory” referendum questions can say whatever the proponents want them to say, as they are not subject to the same restrictions as “binding” referendum questions.

I was home-schooled in watchdogging.

There should be a referendum on the $4,000 that the historical taker society has been given by the city council for plaques.

Sorry Pub Dog, according to todays Park Ridge HA, it has been budgeted by the council. You were incorrect on one of your earlier postings.

I guess the historical society takers have the right friends on the council to get an easy $4,000 from taxpayers.

The “advisory” referendum on flooding is just a spineless way to deal with the problem. As I’ve stated, the Council and Mayor should vote on SSA’s first. Why skip an easy step?

No way it passes, but that’s really the goal of the referendum, isn’t it?

Then, when they run for reelection, they can say “we tried”. But, hey, we can now walk by a few buildings and see plaques to tell us why an old, ugly building exists.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kind of hard to follow your stream of unconciousness, but we’re guessing you’re being facetious about the $4,000 referendum – because otherwise you’d be a moron. ?

While we don’t know what YOU have stated because you don’t give your name, we agree that the Council should vote on whether Mayfield Estates and Northwest Park should get SSAs; and, if so, what amount of subsidy will the City contribute. But that will still require a referendum by the affected residents.

Why not ask the entire COMMUNITY if they want to pay for flood control projects in the Second Ward? Because you think they’re going to say “no” and you don’t want to hear the Council to hear that?

Disband the Historical Society –

To clarify, the Historical Society did not receive $4,000 for plaques. It was the Historic Preservation Commission. Some communities charge the cost of a plaque to the resident receiving, others do not. And yes, $4,000 does seem excessive for 9 plaques.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re guessing $450 each is probably reasonable for a decent-sized cast metal plaque (assuming that’s what these are). Whether the City should be spending that kind of money, however, is a different question.

Evanston & Oak Park plaques are in the $200-225 range.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yes, but they’re made out of Silly Putty painted bronze.

PW, your friend Laura Enright has a letter to the editor in the Herald-Advocate in which she rips the candidates for library board for what she terms their not “asking the members of the community to fund the institution that they use the most.”

Isn’t that what is being done by the library referendum you write about in this post?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Poor Ms. Enright seems to be a bit confused about who wanted to give the taxpayers a referendum to prove how much in additional taxes they were willing to pay for the Library – just like she is confused about who decided to close the Library for 14 summer Sundays and allegedly deprive her and some of her co-workers of their Sunday hours.

As for her claim that the Library is “the institution that [members of the community] use the most,” after almost 3 years on the Library Board this editor has yet to see any data from the Library Staff that would support such a comment. To the contrary, the Library Staff continues to provide squishy-to-outright-wrong data about Library use, starting with daily, monthly and annual attendance figures that are so ineffectively counted as to create the likelihood that they are substantially inflated.

I love Ms. E’s “demonetization” — a very apt malapropism, to be sure. Monetizing — or de-monetizing — is where it’s at!

EDITOR’S NOTE: And we want to iterate, and reiterate, that we have not been able to find any way to “monetize” this blog. At least not yet.

Hmm, seems flooding is not just a second-ward issue … or is this a new location for an SSA?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Flooding has never been “just a second-ward issue.” It’s just that some of those folks think they’re special and entitled to a multi-million dollar bailout of their property values by the rest of the City’s taxpayers – many/most of whom still have, and will continue to have, flooding problems of their own.

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