BLOOMINGTON — A lawsuit filed by Alderman Judy Stearns that seeks to force the City Council to seat her was called “premature” Thursday by the city attorney.
Stearns, who won a second term in the April 5 election, was not seated at the May 9 council meeting because of lingering questions about whether she owed the city money for underpaid property taxes because of multiple homestead exemptions.
Attempts to reach Stearns’ local attorney, Mercer Turner, who represented her at the council meeting, and Geneva attorneys Peter Storm and Philip Piscopo, who filed the lawsuit in McLean County Circuit Court, were unsuccessful Thursday.
City attorney Todd Greenburg noted the City Council has not made a decision on the status of Stearns as an alderman, and the council is awaiting the opinion of another attorney, who was hired by the city last week. He added that under state law, the City Council has the authority to determine if aldermen are eligible to hold office.
“In the event the attorney renders an opinion that Ms. Stearns should be seated, and the City Council agrees with that opinion, the case is moot,” Greenburg said.
A hearing is set for Sept. 1.
Concerns over Stearns’ eligibility were raised after a First District Appellate Court decision forced a candidate off the ballot in Chicago because that candidate had unpaid taxes resulting from multiple homestead exemptions.
In her lawsuit filed Wednesday (view a copy of the lawsuit document here), Stearns blames her political opponents who have “attempted to falsely and maliciously portray (Stearns) as having failed to pay real estate taxes.”
She contends that she has paid all of the taxes she has been billed for by the county and that the multiple exemptions were a result of errors in the county assessor’s system for keeping track of exemptions. County officials previously said they are not going to try to collect on any underpayments because of the multiple homestead exemptions.
Stearns also said Mayor Steve Stockton “made it clear that (she) would not be seated in the City Council despite her election victory unless she acceded to his demands” to pay $1,479 to the city, $393 to the Bloomington Public Library District and $305 to the City of Bloomington Township.
Stockton said that’s not what happened but he declined to go into specifics because the case is considered pending litigation by the city.
“I strongly dispute her fact and we will be responding to that in the city’s written response to her lawsuit that we will file in court,” Stockton said.
Stearns said in the lawsuit that she does not want the money back, but she wants the payments to be considered donations to those three governmental bodies.
Greenburg said nowhere in Stearns’ filing does she refer to the appellate court decision, which is the basis for the council’s action to delay a decision on whether Stearns should be sworn in for a second four-year term. A candidate cannot hold an elected office if they owe the city money, according to state law.
In a March 25 story, The Pantagraph reported that Stearns and her husband, Randy Stearns, had four homestead exemptions found during a review of property tax payment records for Bloomington aldermen and candidates. Property owners are only allowed one exemption under state law.
Stearns’ candidacy papers were filed in November but were not challenged during her campaign against challenger Carol Koos, whom Stearns defeated by 64 votes.