Allie Harned, right, with Darlene Cannon and former Gov. Pat Quinn filing referendum petitions last December.

Backers of a proposed referendum that would establish an initiative process for adopting city ordinances submitted more than 3,800 petition signatures at the Evanston City Clerk’s office late this afternoon.

Assuming most of the signatures are valid, that appears to be well above the roughly 2,700 signatures required for the issue to win a place on the March 2020 presidental primary election ballot.

City Clerk Devon Reid snaps a picture of Harned signing a form to accompany the petitions.

More than a dozen backers of the petition drive gathered in the city clerk’s office as drive organizer Allie Harned turned in the petitions.

She announced that just a half dozen people, many of them in the room, had gathered more than 2,500 of the signatures — with former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn coming in second with 682 signatures.

Quinn said he believes the voter-initiated process to adopt a binding referendum-driven procedure for enacting new ordinances is authorized under Section 11 (a) of Article VII of the 1970 state constitution which provides:

Proposals for actions which are authorized by this Article or by law and which require approval by referendum may be initiated and submitted to the electors by resolution of the governing board of a unit of local government or by petition of electors in the manner provided by law.”

However Section 6 (f) of Article VII appears to limit the authorization for action by referendum as follows:

A home rule unit shall have the power subject to approval by referendum to adopt, alter or repeal a form of government provided by law, except that the form of government of Cook County shall be subject to the provisions of Section 3 of this Article. A home rule municipality shall have the power to provide for its officers, their manner of selection and terms of office only as approved by referendum or as otherwise authorized by law.

And the state election code provides at 10 ILCS 5/28-6 (c) that:

Local questions of public policy authorized by this Section and statewide questions of public policy authorized by Section 28-9 shall be advisory public questions, and no legal effects shall result from the adoption or rejection of such propositions.

Quinn argues that the election code restriction is overridden by the constitional provision, but it does not appear that the issue has ever been litigated.

Quinn speaking with supporters of the petition drive at the Civic Center this afternoon.

It appears the only Illinois municipality where voters have adopted a referendum-based approach to adopting ordinances is Arlington Heights, which did so in 1981.

The Chicago Tribune reported in 1989 that the first attempt to use the voter referendum process — by opponents of a housing development for the elderly that had been approved by the village board — was initially blocked by the board when the village attorney, Jack M. Siegel, who at the time was also city attorney for Evanston, ruled that the citizens initiative ordinance didn’t apply to zoning issues.

At a second stage of the village’s referendum process, the housing development opponents failed to gather the number of signatures that would have been required to place the measure on the ballot.

Quinn says that to the best of his knowledge Arlington Heights voters have never been presented with a referendum issue since the 1981 adoption of the ordinance.

The referendum process to create new ordinances proposed for Evanston by the petitions would have the following steps:

  1. If at least 25 registered voters petition the city clerk for a new ordinance, the clerk would draft their proposal into ordinance form.
  2. If supporters of the proposal then gather petition signatures equal to at least 8% of the total votes cast in Evanston for candidates for governor in the last gubernatorial election (currently more than 2,700 signatures), the proposal would be placed on the City Council agenda.
  3. If the City Council did not adopt the ordinance within 70 days, the measure then would be submitted to the voters at the next election.
  4. If the measure received support from a majority of voters in that election, the ordinance would go into effect, unless it was disapproved by a resolution of the City Council within 30 days after the election.

Given that an ordinance is subject to amendment or repeal by the Council at any time, it’s not clear whether a referendum vote — especially if there were a close outcome — would actually have a long-lasting impact.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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