Only one of five potential electoral board members remained once the initial hearing was over Wednesday morning in Madison County.
The electoral board empaneled to review challenges to election petitions is usually comprised of the county clerk, circuit clerk and state’s attorney. If any of them recuses himself or herself from the panel, the seat then goes to the county treasurer, and then to the sheriff.
However, nearly everyone in those positions has somehow been involved in the petition for a referendum to reduce Madison County’s maximum tax rate, which is currently under two challenges.
Republican Treasurer Kurt Prenzler was a circulator and helped file the petition and is challenging Democratic Chairman Alan Dunstan for county chairman in November. Both State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons and Sheriff John Lakin have voiced their opposition to the referendum, stating that it would significantly impact Madison County law enforcement efforts.
The referendum would lower the maximum tax rate from 0.25 to 0.20. County leaders estimated the savings for a homeowner with a $100,000 home would be less than $6 per year, while it would require them to lay off up to 47 employees. Prenzler said he estimated the savings would be closer to $16 a year.
County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza is chairwoman of the electoral board and called the various members to an initial hearing Wednesday morning to consider a challenge filed by former police chief Ben Dickmann.
Gibbons was the first to recuse himself from the board. Later, he said he recused himself because he has made public statements opposing the referendum.
“We want the process to be fair and objective, and we want the public to have confidence in the process,” Gibbons said.
Next County Clerk Mark Von Nida recused himself. Later he clarified that he did not remove himself because of his position as clerk, but because only a few weeks ago he was named chairman of the Madison County Democratic Party.
“The Democratic Party joins with law enforcement in the belief that it is important to scrutinize this closely,” Von Nida said.
“As a leader of the Republican Party once said, ‘Trust but verify,’” he added, quoting the late President Ronald Reagan. “We are seeking to verify that their efforts fulfilled all aspects of the law.”
Under the order of succession, the next in line was Prenzler as county treasurer. He stated he was undecided as to whether to recuse himself.
Dickmann’s attorney, Bill Schooley, said that they would object to Prenzler serving on the board, as he filed the petition with former Congressional candidate Mike Firsching, and was a circulator of several signature sheets himself. Schooley pointed out that at some point, Prenzler may be called as a witness in the proceedings.
Attorney James Craney, who is defending the petition with attorney Don Weber, said that Prenzler might be willing to recuse himself if the sheriff, next in the line of succession, also did so.
Lakin indicated he intended to step aside as well, as he also has made multiple public statements opposing the referendum due to anticipated layoffs of deputies if it goes into effect.
At that point Prenzler recused himself as well, which left Ming-Mendoza as the only remaining member of the board. The issue next goes to Chief Judge David Hylla, who will be asked to appoint two private citizens to the electoral board.
Von Nida has said they would ask Hylla to appoint at least one Republican to the board. “It is not a Republican or Democratic question, it is a legal question: Are there enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot?” Von Nida said at the time. “We realize that the public must have confidence in the decision of the board; therefore the Democratic officeholders are open to the idea of an appointment of a Republican.”
But Weber said he believed the Democratic Party was behind the objections in the first place. “In the shadows, the Democratic Party has put this all together,” he said. “They’re either incompetent objectors or there’s a pattern of deceit.”
A second objection was filed Tuesday by Richard Gillespie of Alton. That petition is set for its own hearing on Friday. Ming-Mendoza said she would ask to combine the two proceedings for efficiency, but Craney said they have not yet consented to that idea. He suggested that before the Friday hearing, both parties should meet with Hylla so that a board can be empaneled and set a schedule.
Once a board is chosen, Ming-Mendoza said, the members of the board would then go through the petition line by line for every contested signature and every challenged circulator. As the first objection alone was more than 1,000 pages, she anticipated it would be a lengthy process.
Gillespie, a retired police officer from Alton, said he was motivated to examine the petition for inaccuracies because he was concerned about cuts to law enforcement if the tax rate is lowered. Dickmann, who was a police officer and chief for Edwardsville for 30 years, said his motivation was his “passion for law enforcement,” and once he examined the petitions, he found numerous problems with multiple signatures.
“I don’t have any objection to people petitioning,” Dickmann said. “But the rules have to be followed.”