Metro-East News

Board rules 9,900-plus signatures on Madison County tax petition must be reviewed

Only about 10,000 signatures to check!

Madison County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza and office staff are checking every signature on tax referendum petitions.
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Madison County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza and office staff are checking every signature on tax referendum petitions.

An objection to the review of the petition to add a tax referendum to the Madison County ballot in November was filed before work actually began this week.

The petition contained nearly 10,000 signatures calling for a vote to reduce Madison County’s tax rate by 5 cents. Proponents of the referendum say the county brings in more money than it needs; opponents say the cut will cause drastic budget cuts to services such as law enforcement.

Last month, two former police officers separately filed objections to the petition: Ben Dickmann, who served as Edwardsville police chief and later city administrator for decades; and Richard Gillespie, who is now retired from the Alton Police Department. Both allege that the petitions contain a significant number of invalid signatures and that two of the collectors falsified information on the signature sheets.

In order to be a valid signature, the person signing it must be registered to vote at the address they wrote down on the petition sheet, and that address has to be within Madison County.

Earlier this week, the Electoral Review Board met with all attorneys present and settled on a plan to address part of the objections: whether all the people who signed the petition are registered to vote at the addresses given. To that end, Ming-Mendoza’s staff is manually checking every name against the voter registry, and flagging those who have put down a different address than their voter registration and who signed the petition more than once.

The minimum number required to place the petition on the ballot is 8,024. The board had voted to review all 9,985 signatures rather than select signatures throughout the petition.

“This exercise isn’t to determine if there are enough signatures,” Ming-Mendoza said. “It’s to determine whether the address is verified.”

This exercise isn’t to determine if there are enough signatures. It’s to determine whether the address is verified.

Debbie Ming-Mendoza, Madison County clerk

Before the review began, however, the petitioners filed an objection on several grounds: They objected to reviewing all the signatures in the petition; protested that county clerk employees are not handwriting experts; and said none of the employees should be involved because they are members of the AFSCME union.

“The objection was duly noted and we began,” Ming-Mendoza said. “I don’t agree with it, but they have every right to file the objection.”

However, Ming-Mendoza said, the board has made its decision and she assumed the objection is for the record, in case it goes to court. She also clarified that this first review is not comparing signatures or “anything subjective,” but is only verifying addresses and voter registration.

The procedure hit a snag on day one, when the software program used by the clerk’s office refused to let more than one person work at a time. It took several hours to get it working, Ming-Mendoza said, so the review officially began Thursday in the central part of the county clerk’s office, with one observer permitted from each side.

Prenzler declined further comment on the objection.

The board slated to rule on the objections is normally comprised of the state’s attorney, county clerk and circuit clerk. However, both State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons and Circuit Clerk Mark Von Nida recused themselves. Gibbons had spoken publicly against the referendum, citing the potential impact to law enforcement; and Von Nida had recently been named chairman of the Madison County Democratic Party.

The other officers in the line of succession included Sheriff John Lakin, who had publicly spoken against the referendum; and Treasurer Kurt Prenzler, who was filed the petition with coordinator Mike Firsching, and had circulated signature sheets himself. Both recused themselves.

Ming-Mendoza remains as chairwoman of the committee. Madison County Chief Judge David Hylla has since appointed retired associate judge James Hackett and former assistant state’s attorney Stephanie Robbins to the committee. Ming-Mendoza and Robbins voted in favor of the full binder review; Hackett reserved judgment for now, Ming-Mendoza said.

The first hearing was to take place last week, but it had to be postponed due to the absence of both lawyers defending the petition: Don Weber and James Craney. Attorney William Schooley represents the objectors, and former U.S. Attorney Steve Wigginton will advise the electoral board.