Illinois Bar Journal

October 2012Volume 100Number 10Page 514

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High court: unpaid property tax not a bar to running for municipal office

The Illinois Supreme Court limited the reach of the candidate-qualifications statute to make it harder to remove candidates from the ballot for "indebtedness to the municipality."

In a 2008 opinion that opened a small floodgate of ballot-access litigation, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that a statute prohibiting certain debtors from holding an elective municipal office could be used to remove a potential candidate's name from the ballot prior to election day.

In a subsequent decision released last month, the court plugged the dam and narrowed the reach of that law by holding that property taxes owed to a county do not qualify as "a tax or other indebtedness due to the municipality," even though some of those tax dollars do end up in municipal coffers.

The Illinois Municipal Code section at issue in both cases was an office-holding eligibility law stating, among other things, that "A person is not eligible for an elective municipal office if that person is in arrears in the payment of a tax or other indebtedness due to the municipality…" 65 ILCS 5/3.1-10-5(b).

Historically, the statute was enforced only after an election, as a means to stop the winning candidate from taking the oath of office if that candidate was, on the day of taking office, late in the payment of a debt owed to the city or village that elected him.

But in its 2008 opinion in Cinkus v. Village of Stickney Municipal Officers Electoral Board, et al., 228 Ill.2d 200, the supreme court held that this office-holding restriction could also be a candidate-eligibility law. The Cinkus court affirmed usage of the statute to restrict ballot access for a candidate who owed a $100 debt to his village at the time he signed a mandatory sworn oath on his statement of candidacy form stating he was, at the time of signing, qualified to hold the office sought.

In the following election cycle, numerous "Cinkus objections" were brought against candidates alleging debts like unpaid parking tickets, dog-license fees, city stickers and even property taxes that are assessed and collected by counties, not municipalities.

In the court's recent decision, Jackson v. Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, et al., 2012 IL 111928, the seven justices agreed that property taxes owed to Cook County were not what the legislature had in mind when it enacted the underlying statute. The court reversed the first district appellate court's decision to invalidate the candidacy and held that the candidate's name should have been certified for the election.

A shorter checklist for election lawyers

"My reading of the [Jackson] case is that the supreme court is defining the debt owed to a municipality more narrowly, where the check is actually written to the order of the municipality," said Chicago-based election-law attorney James P. Nally. Nally represented the objector in the legal challenge against Carmelita Earls, whose aldemanic candidacy was at issue in Jackson.

"This should simplify the number of items that a diligent attorney will ensure his client checks [prior to filing nomination papers] to determine whether there's any debt owed to the municipality," Nally said.

According to the Jackson opinion, prior to filing her nomination papers as a candidate for alderman of Chicago's 28th Ward, Earls sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Chicago Department of Revenue seeking information pertaining to any debts she might owe the city. The city promptly responded with a written letter stating it had "performed a thorough indebtedness investigation" and that in regards to Earls, "no outstanding debt was found across any of the debt types."

Nonetheless, Nally's client Eileen Jackson, a registered voter of the 28th Ward, filed a legal challenge relying on the Cinkus decision as authority for using the relevant Municipal Code section to remove Earls' name from the ballot due to tax debts allegedly owed to Chicago.

In the course of electoral board proceedings, it was found that Earls and her husband had improperly obtained homestead tax exemptions on two of the three properties they jointly owned in the 28th ward. They quickly refunded the tax credits on two of the properties with a payment to the Cook County assessor's office.

The Chicago electoral board found the improper tax credits constituted a debt Earls owed at the time she signed the sworn oath in her nomination papers, just like in the Cinkus case. Yet the board certified her name to the ballot after finding that these property taxes, which are assessed and collected by Cook County, were not a debt owed to Chicago under the meaning of the Municipal Code.

The Circuit Court of Cook County affirmed the board's decision on judicial review, but the appellate court reversed and ordered Earls' name to be removed from the ballot, or that the board post notices in polling places informing voters that ballots cast for Earls would not be counted.

Too late for Earls

Although too late to change the outcome of the election, the supreme court took the case under the public-interest exception to the mootness doctrine and reversed the appellate court, holding that the electoral board had ruled correctly from the start that taxes paid to a county are not a debt to a municipality for candidate-eligibility purposes.

"The obligation of citizens to pay taxes is purely a statutory creation, and taxes can be levied, assessed and collected only in the manner expressly spelled out by statute," Justice Karmeier wrote for a court that unanimously agreed on the indebtedness issue, but was split 5-2 against ordering a special election with Earls as a candidate.

The court said municipal taxing bodies merely determine the total amount of revenue needed from property taxes and then certify levies in that amount to the clerk of the county in which they are located. It then becomes solely the county's duty - not the municipality's - to assess and collect those taxes.

The court further noted that property owners cannot make direct payments to the municipal taxing bodies for their share of the county taxes, nor can a municipality seek payment directly from taxpayers for the city's share of the bill.

"That being the case, property taxes cannot be deemed a 'tax or other indebtedness due to [a] municipality' within the meaning of section 3.1-10-5(b) of the Municipal Code," the court said.

Earls' attorney Randy Crumpton, also a Chicago-based election lawyer, applauded the court's recent decision, even though it came too late to garner any votes for his client.

The Jackson opinion finally tells us when and where the Cinkus decision ends in regards to taxes, Crumpton said. "At least now we know what the limits are in terms of what kinds of tax debts will be construed as a municipal debt."

Adam W. Lasker <> is a Chicago-based lawyer and writer.

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