Marengo petition dispute heats up

MARENGO – The city’s electoral board is expected to decide next week whether a petition for a referendum on a $12 million water treatment plant expansion failed to meet legal muster.

Residents packed City Hall’s meeting chamber Friday night for a public hearing to review the petition results. Vernon Seelhoff, a Marengo registered voter, filed an objection to Dennis Hammortree’s petition, questioning the validity of the collected signatures. The board is slated to deliver its decision at 6 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall, at 132 Prairie St.

Hammortree, a former Marengo mayor, led a recent petitioning effort and collected 596 signatures. He and supporters want the city to allow the voters to decide whether to move forward with the $12 million expansion, which would raise water bills by $25 a month. Taking the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s 1.25 percent interest-loan offer would increase water bills by $25 a month, or $75 a bill, which is distributed in three-month cycles.

At least 10 percent of Marengo’s registered voters, 468 residents, had to sign the petition for it to pass. A total of 596 signatures were collected – and 110 residents have since revoked their signatures.

Seelhoff and his attorneys, Mark Gummerson and Rebecca Lee, said a total of 227 signatures were invalid, undermining the entire petition. They said they found irregularities and other election code violations.

Some residents who helped to circulate the petition and gather signatures did not follow election code procedure, according to Seelhoff’s objection. Seelhoff and his attorneys contend that some of them were not sworn under oath to circulate the forms, did not witness every signing, and did not sign off the sheet in the presence of a notary public. The circulators in question were called up to testify under oath at Friday’s hearing and did not dispute those facts. Seelhoff’s attorneys also pointed out that the petitions were “not bound securely and numbered consecutively” as outlined under the election code.

Hammortree served as mayor for five years before current Mayor Don Lockhart won the April 2005 election. He circulated a petition two weeks ago to push back against city efforts on the project.

Hammortree said the three-member board composed of Mayor Don Lockhart, Councilman Mike Secor and City Clerk Constance Boxleitner, with City Attorney Carlos Arevalo moderating the proceedings, should not be presiding over the dispute and suggested that they recuse themselves and ask the McHenry County Court to appoint a judge.

City Council officials say the existing plant’s equipment and infrastructure is more than 30 years old and operates at its maximum capacity. When it reaches this point, the IEPA can prevent the city from issuing building permits if the city chooses not to expand. An expansion would extend the plant’s life for at least an additional 20 years. Last July, the IEPA issued a report, a precursor to a permit, giving Marengo a favorable review for the city to move forward with the expansion, Assistant City Administrator Josh Blakemore said.

Arevalo reminded Hammortree on multiple occasions to stick to the issue brought forth by Seelhoff’s objections.

“The merits of the referendum obviously are outside and not relevant to it,” Arevalo said. “We are only talking about whether it gets on the ballot based on the procedures that [were] followed to get both the petitions in for the referendum and the objection’s component it.”

Hammortree didn’t mince words at the two-hour hearing.

“Basically, this is a kangaroo court,” he said.

Hammortree noted that the city made mistakes as well. The petition forms, which are provided by the city, state that the consolidated primary election will be Feb. 7, 2012. The election is scheduled for March 2012.

“I got it from the city,” he said. “I thought it was legitimate.”

Later, he added that “they’re going to do what they need to do to get their thing passed through.”

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