Herb Sorock, the Wilmette resident who unsuccessfully fought the April 5 School District 39 tax rate referendum has lost his first round in court; Cook County Court Judge Rita M. Novak on Thursday dismissed the case.
In doing so, she rejected arguments by Sorock and co-plaintiff Taxpayers United of America that challenged the legality of the ballot language used by District 39.
Tax law, the law that covers tax hike referendums, is complicated, Novak acknowledged. Despite that, and despite the lack of specificity in the code about how to word the ballot language, “I conclude there was no error in terms of construing the statute when this language was placed on the ballot.”
Sorock and Taxpayers United officials now have 30 days in which they can appeal the ruling.
Sorock and attorney Andrew Spiegel said they will discuss the possibility, but want to wait until after June 30, the next date a similar lawsuit against Oak Park School District 97 is due back in court. Spiegel said that Taxpayers United might want to combine the cases on appeal.
Sorock admitted he had not expected the case to be dismissed.
“Frankly I thought we had strong arguments.”
Sorock found silver linings in Novak’s decision, pointing out that she did not remove Taxpayers United as a plaintiff, nor did she grant District 39 some of its other requests.
District 39 board president Karen Donnan said after court that she was pleased with the decision, “but we have to go back and figure out what this cost the taxpayer. You can only spend a dollar once, and dollars spent on this aren’t being spent in the classroom.”
Before making her ruling, Novak heard board attorney Ares Dalianis say that tax code language which requires the equalizer to be kept out of ballot questions essentially trumps other sections in the code that appear to require its inclusion.
The district was “open, transparent, consistent, truthful, and they did what they said they were going to do,” he said.
State legislators are already addressing Sorock’s and Taxpayers United’s concerns about how ballot language should be written, Dalianis said. Moreover, their concerns about the specific taxing results from the district referendum should more properly be addressed as tax objections, he added.
The lawsuit itself amounted to an effort by Sorock and Taxpayers United to “overturn the will of the voters … one person would effectively be disenfranchising the people who voted for this referendum,” he said.
Spiegel told Novak that the tax code is clear that the equalizer must be included as part of referendum language, despite the code’s exclusionary clause; “courts should consider statutes in their entirety, not piece-meal.”
In talking points that turned on legal minutia, he returned repeatedly to a sub-paragraph in the tax code clause that school officials referred to while drawing up the ballot language. Unlike clauses that surround that one, Spiegel said, it contains no specific instructions on how it is to be used; the district improperly used instructions in another clause to explain the first paragraph.
Novak ultimately disagreed, saying she believed the explanation could properly be used in the manner the district and its legal counsel used it.
Since Sorock and the anti-tax group filed their lawsuit May 16, the district has maintained that it never misled voters about what it was seeking, or what taxpayers would pay if the hike went into effect.
The language used in the referendum would allow the district to collect more than $49 million in taxes, including new taxes generated by the referendum. However, district officials 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.