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UPDATE: Court rejects effort to put smart meters on ballot

A DuPage County judge rejected efforts by opponents of Naperville’s new smart meters to ask voters whether the technology should be used.

Circuit Judge Bonnie Wheaton ruled Tuesday afternoon the Naperville electoral board made the correct decision in determining the Naperville Smart Meter Awareness Group did not have enough valid petition signatures to get a referendum on the March ballot.

Wheaton said she has “no doubt all persons who submitted petitions as circulators did so in good faith,” but that is not the standard for determining whether enough signatures are valid.

Smart meter opponents have been trying to hold a non-binding referendum asking voters if the city should stop the smart meter project and dismantle the equipment. The group has cited health, security and privacy concerns about the wireless electric meters, though the city has maintained they are safe and will make the electric system more reliable, efficient and cost-effective.

Earlier this month, Naperville’s electoral board ruled smart meter opponents are short 124 valid signatures to place the referendum on the March ballot. The opponents’ attorney, Doug Ibendahl, asked Wheaton to reverse that decision and argued in court Tuesday the board should have ordered a joint examination of voter records known as a “binder check” in order to properly determine which signatures came from registered Naperville voters. He also alleged the board violated the Open Meetings Act by reviewing subpoenaed records outside of the public hearings.

“You simply can’t invalidate signatures, people’s hard work and intent, behind closed doors,” he said.

In addition, Ibendahl criticized the city for an email Community Relations Manager Nadja Lalvani sent to smart grid proponents suggesting the possibility of challenging the referendum petition. City Clerk Pam LaFeber was copied on the email and Ibendahl argued it was inappropriate for her to then sit on the electoral board.

City Attorney Margo Ely replied that being copied on the email does not mean LaFeber was biased. She also said the board had a right to review subpoenaed voter registration records and that members did so individually.

Kevin McQuillan, attorney for petition objector Bill Dawe, agreed the hearing process was done correctly and told Wheaton at least 50 petition signatures came from unincorporated areas outside Naperville and others were from neighboring cities. He also rejected Ibendahl’s claim there is no harm in allowing the non-binding referendum to be placed on the ballot so voters can have a say in the matter.

“To say we were close or what’s the harm, the issue here is the integrity of the electoral process,” McQuillan said.

Wheaton agreed with Ibendahl that gathering signatures is complicated by Naperville being split between two counties and the existence of unincorporated areas surrounded by land that is within city limits. However, she said that doesn’t change the fact signatures must be from registered voters who live in the city. She also likened the electoral board to a “quasi-judicial body” and said similar to a jury it can go behind closed doors to deliberate if it chooses.

After the hearing, McQuillan called Wheaton’s decision “a very good, reasoned opinion.”

“I don’t know how many times they (smart meter opponents) have to be told what to do and how to do it right,” he said.

However, Ibendahl said the ruling was “clearly wrong” and “a green light for a more closed process.”

“New law was made here today,” he said. “The bar has been lowered.”

Ibendahl said he will talk to his clients about the possibility of taking the case to the Illinois Appellate Court. DuPage County officials say they need to start printing ballots right away, but Ibendahl said there is precedent for asking election authorities to reprint ballots following a late court ruling.

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