Individual members of the Wilmette School District 39 School Board no longer face legal action in connection with a lawsuit claiming the district’s successful tax-rate hike referendum proposal was illegal.
Both sides in the lawsuit, filed last week by Wilmette resident Herb Sorock and Taxpayers United of America, will learn June 23 whether a judge will grant a temporary restraining order to keep the district from collecting new taxes generated by the referendum – or if she will instead dismiss the case altogether.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Rita Novak on Monday granted a motion from district attorneys removing the board members as defendants, despite a claim by plaintiff attorney Andrew Spiegel that their actions in approving the referendum were so “egregious” that they should remain part of the legal action.
Novak told Spiegel and district attorney Ares Dalianis to have their supporting briefs to her by June 9. She will rule on both motions June 23 at the Daley Center in Chicago.
District 39 School Board President Karen Donnan and Superintendent Raymond Lechner said after the hearing that they were pleased Novak had listened to the argument that state law gives policy-making officials, including board members, immunity from legal action. In making the argument, Dalianis pointed out that individual board members can take no policy action on behalf of the district.
The board was expected to meet Monday night in closed session to review the progress of the suit, Lechner and Donnan said.
Sorock said he was not surprised at Novak’s decision, although he is not pleased with it.
Sorock and Taxpayers United had originally planned to ask for the temporary restraining order Monday, but agreed to hold off after district attorneys provided an affidavit from the Cook County Clerk’s Office stating that county officials will not begin collecting taxes from the 2010 levy until at least July 1.
The lawsuit claims the board and district officials knew before the April 5 referendum proposal that the amount of money to be generated by the 35 cent tax-rate hike was understated, but decided to go forward with the ballot question regardless.
Specifically, it challenges the legality of the language used on the ballot, claiming that the actual question voters saw failed to include the state equalizer in calculating the estimated property tax increase, thereby understating that increase by at least two-thirds of the actual amount.
District officials argue that the language used was not only checked by district legal counsel, but required by state law. They also said they made no secret how much they actually wanted to collect, and even passed a resolution promising to collect no more than the $43.93 million they said they needed.
The language used in the referendum proposal would allow the district to collect more than $49 million in taxes, including new taxes generated by the referendum.
On Monday, Sorock and Spiegel disputed the argument. The law doesn’t prohibit districts from putting in information about the equalizer, they insisted.
State House members on April 15 unanimously passed a bill that would require the use of the equalizer in all future ballot questions. The bill now goes to the Senate, which goes back into session May 5.
Taxpayers United filed similar lawsuits in April against Oak Park School District 97 and against Riverside-Brookfield School District 208.