A city election board hearing officer ruled Monday that a proposed binding referendum to impose term limits on Chicago mayors is legally invalid and should not appear on the November ballot because the City Council got there first.

Lawyer Barbara Goodman found that under state law there is no room for the term limit referendum because it was crowded out by Chicago aldermen placing three advisory referenda on the ballot.

Former Gov. Pat Quinn and his Take Charge Chicago group unsuccessfully argued that the binding referendum should take precedent.

Goodman also found that Quinn erred by including two proposed referendum questions on the petition instead of one.

In addition to the more publicized effort to limit Chicago mayors to a pair of four-year terms, Quinn had sought a public vote on his pet idea of establishing an elected city consumer advocate.

Goodman’s findings are treated as a recommendation to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

The board could accept or reject her findings, either of which is expected to trigger an extended court fight. There is also a possibility election officials could accept her recommendation but still put the questions on the November ballot while waiting for the courts to rule.

Some of the steam was expected to come out of the term limits fight now that it no longer has the potential of directly derailing Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who effectively term-limited himself this week with his decision not to run for re-election.

Former Gov. Pat Quinn (right) defends the validity of signatures on his petitions seeking a binding referendum to set term limits on Chicago mayors. Board of Election Commissioners employee Arthur King (center) rules on objections filed by allies of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, represented here by Benjamin Bui (left.)

Former Gov. Pat Quinn (right) defends the validity of signatures on his petitions seeking a binding referendum to set term limits on Chicago mayors. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times

The mayor explained his decision in part by saying: “This has been the job of a lifetime, but it’s not a job for a lifetime.”

But the mayor’s allies have continued to press ahead with their effort to keep the term limits proposal from being put to a vote, which would preserve the right of future mayors to hold the position indefinitely.

Quinn said the hearing officer’s decision was a disappointment but not a surprise and vowed to take the matter to court.

“It’s really going to be a matter for a judge to decide,” argued Quinn, who believes his strongest case is based on a constitutional argument that the election board is barred from considering.

Answered Peter Giangreco, Emanuel’s political spokesman: “This was a personal vendetta, not serious policy. And the board saw it for all of its flaws. It would never have passed a serious constitutional review either.”

The named objectors to the referendum petitions are Brett Allen Czaja and Karen Larson, considered stand-ins for the Emanuel campaign.

Michael Kasper, Emanuel’s election lawyer, is representing the objectors, and the mayor’s campaign spokesman went on the offensive last week to question Quinn’s motives, sincerity and legal acumen in seeking the term limits referendum.

Of course, many other Illinois politicians would prefer to keep out term limits, including Kasper’s other main political benefactor and client, House Speaker Mike Madigan.

A preliminary report last week from election board officials indicated Quinn’s group had collected more than the minimum 52,533 valid signatures necessary to place the question on the Nov. 6 ballot.

That matter remains undecided, however, while the election board’s handwriting expert continues to rule on the validity of thousands of challenged signatures.

Despite the hearing officer’s recommendation, city election officials have indicated they may need to put the referendum on the November ballot anyway because there is too little time to allow expected court challenges to play out before voting starts.

Military and overseas ballots are scheduled to go in the mail Sept. 21, while early voting begins Sept. 27 at the Loop Super Site, 175 W. Washington St.

The thinking is that, if voting proceeds, a court could strike down the referendum at a later date—or nullify its results—without causing harm. But if a court later determined the matter deserved to be on the ballot but wasn’t, there would be no adequate remedy.