Broadview: Strip club influence?
Two issues have consumed politics in the near west suburb: the lingering fight over a proposed strip club and an intense battle to kick incumbents off the ballot.
Are those two issues related? It's a matter of debate — and an example of how it's difficult for voters to figure out if outside special interest groups are secretly trying to influence the race.
Current village officials oppose the strip club, and the club's backers have sued the village. This year, ballot challenges have targeted most incumbents.
At a recent town hall meeting, Mayor Sherman Jones' campaign manager, Matt Ames, alleged that strip club proponent David Donahue was behind the ballot challenges.
Jones' faction said it is familiar with the tactic. Back in 2009, Donahue's allies worked behind the scenes to help elect Jones. Ames told the Tribune that the help included a consultant who bragged about pushing ballot challenges to distract Jones' opponents.
Jones said he had no interest in helping Donahue, and his faction kept up the village's legal fight against the club. Now, Jones and his slate are the ones fighting to stay on the ballot, with a second round of court challenges that could last for weeks.
The challenges against incumbents were filed by a member of a new political faction, Jarry Shelby, who denies Donahue is involved. Donahue also denies it.
Any registered voter in the town can file an objection. Typically high-priced lawyers are hired to make the legal arguments to kick candidates off the ballot, but neither the lawyer nor the official objector is required to say who's paying the legal bills.
Even in cases where a rival candidate files an objection, such as in Broadview, gray areas in the law allow the candidate to wait to disclose help from outsiders until after the election, if at all.
Calumet City: Ignoring decisions
For the primary ballot, the city's electoral board — stocked with incumbents — voted to kick off a host of rivals over six missing words in a phrase involving a notary.
It didn't matter that the candidates had used forms downloaded from the state Board of Elections, which had left out the phrase.
Or that a Will County electoral board had once ruled a candidate couldn't be kicked off the ballot over the missing phrase.
The attorney who lost that case, Burt Odelson, had since become attorney for Calumet City's electoral board. He told the board that the Will County case he had lost was irrelevant. Electoral boards don't have to listen to other electoral boards, just judges. And although the Will County case was ruled on by circuit and appellate judges, none of those judges was asked to rule specifically on the notary language — just other issues in that case.
Turns out the Will County case was prophetic, after all. A Cook County judge ruled in favor of the Calumet City rivals. So did an appellate court.
But the political damage was done. The months of legal limbo left the rivals unable to focus solely on campaigning.
Of the nine rivals facing incumbents, all nine lost.
Cicero: Reform at a price
Cicero has long been notorious for dirty political tricks, but this year the town highlighted how fixing one controversial aspect of the system can make another worse.
Most of Cicero's primary candidates faced ballot challenges. And normally the town president and other incumbents would rule on the cases — making it easy for them to kick challengers off the ballot.
But this time, a county judge made an unprecedented ruling to change who got to decide the ballot cases. The judge ordered the cases to be decided by three independent attorneys appointed by the court.
After weeks of hearings, the new panel kept nearly all the candidates on the ballot, offering voters more choices.
But those voters — and their neighbors — will pay for it. They have to pick up the tab for the appointed lawyers' time, a transcriber's time and town lawyers' time.
Total cost: More than $150,000.
Des Plaines: Identity rejected
Kathleen Zicarelli gladly signed her neighbor's petition to run for alderman.
When the county didn't believe she really signed it, Zicarelli even signed an affidavit saying she did.
Still that wasn't enough. The Des Plaines election panel struck her name from the petitions, helping to scrub Gregory Sarlo's name from the ballot.
"I don't know how they could do that," Zicarelli said.
They can do that because, as the Tribune found, local panels get the final say on whether signatures are counted, and the scores of signatures that candidates collect provide a litany of opportunities for opponents to challenge. In some cases, the Tribune found, objectors called into question the vast majority of a candidate's signatures.
Generally, signatures must match those in the county's voter registration database. Names can be struck if the signer uses an abbreviated first name or uses a newly acquired married name. Or scribbles in a rush. Or prints for clarity.
In Des Plaines, Sarlo ended up before a county employee who used registration records to eyeball contested signatures. The county employee struck more than a dozen of his signatures — five of them because they didn't match the county database, the rest because the signers weren't registered to vote.
Sarlo, a Library Board member and psychologist, obtained affidavits from those whose signatures were in question.
The final call, though, was up to the local panel. Panel members rejected all but two of Sarlo's affidavits, apparently over the signatures on them. And records show they struck down another signature that the county said was fine.
A panel member said they did their best to discern a signature's authenticity.
Three more of Sarlo's signatures fell victim to another legal requirement: Signers are allowed to sign only one candidate's petition. Sarlo ultimately fell seven signatures short of the 60 he needed. He is now a write-in candidate.
Evergreen Park: The paper clip's grip
Standing before a local panel of officeholders, Burt Odelson held aloft the 10-page packet Shawn Good filed to run for mayor — in essence, her political future in his hands.
Then, in a demonstration he's mastered, the filing's sheets fell from the paper clip that held them together. And Good's name was scrubbed from the ballot.
A loose paper clip is just the kind of thing opponents look for when trying to kick a candidate off the ballot. Similar issues were raised in at least three other cases this year.
The law says filing packets must be "neatly fastened." The reason, experts say, is so that filed petition packets can't be easily altered. But candidates can be kicked off even if there are no allegations of alterations.
An appellate court has ruled that using a paper clip could be OK on a small packet, so long as the sheets don't easily separate. So, Odelson's demonstration of the sheets falling out of Good's packet was key and ultimately cited by the panel as a reason to kick her off the ballot.
That panel consisted of political allies of the mayor, the man Good wanted a crack at unseating.
The panel also ruled that Good didn't have enough signatures after a county employee removed more than 20, mostly over questions about whether they matched voter registration records. Good said some of them were longtime family friends.
Good, a local choir member and paralegal, said she was simply outgunned by Odelson, a 40-year election attorney who notably tried to kick Rahm Emanuel off Chicago's mayoral ballot. She is now a write-in candidate; Evergreen Park voters won't see the name of any challenger to the mayor on April's ballot.
Maywood: Draining challenger
Marcius Scaggs was preparing to challenge trustees when a funny thing happened to his village water bill.
Somehow, a $10 late charge was mysteriously added to his account.
The erroneous charge stayed on the account the day Scaggs filed his paperwork. He later discovered the errant charge, prompting the village's Finance Department to remove the mistake from his next bill.
But that mysterious charge was all the ammunition needed to challenge his paperwork. After all, candidates can't owe their towns money the day they file their paperwork.
Experts say such challenges — even the most frivolous ones — have become common political tactics. They're typically pushed by incumbents, hoping to wear down challengers' finances and energy.
Scaggs said he spent $800 fighting the challenge to stay on the ballot. That was money that couldn't be spent giving voters his take on how the struggling town can turn around.
But he considers himself lucky. His legal bills were pooled with others running in the same political party. Independent candidates can be forced to pay thousands, sometimes more than $10,000, just to stay on the ballot.
North Riverside: "Illegal" ampersand
In the near west suburb, the party in power provided a novel reason to kick rivals off the ballot: punctuation.
The rivals had filed paperwork to form a new political party: "Transparency & Accountability in Politics Party."
The problem: Illinois law limits the name of a political party to five words.
And so the new slate was challenged. Hearing the case was an electoral panel stocked with the mayor, a trustee and clerk — all members of the political party at odds with the newly formed one.
The panel decided that the ampersand counted as a word. So did the word "party."
That took the word count to six, in the eyes of the panel, making the party name illegal and its candidates ineligible for the ballot.
The new party appealed, saying the ampersand is a symbol and the word "party" shouldn't count. The case is tied up in appellate court, where a decision may not come until a week before the election.
For now, voters will see only six candidates for five slots in village government — one independent, and the other five from the incumbents' Voters Improvement Party.
Roselle: Whom to trust?
The village clerk offered a warm greeting in a town letter addressing potential candidates: "Congratulations on your decision to become involved in municipal government."
What followed was a helpful listing of what to file to be on the April ballot, including the number of signatures candidates needed.
Attorney Jim Banks and sales manager Jim Schelling said they took the clerk's figures as truth. And to be safe, both brought in slightly more for their mayoral bids.
But after they filed, two trustees — one of them running for mayor — lodged objections against them, saying both were more than 10 signatures short.
The clerk based her signature tally off votes in the 2009 election, the last time the mayor was up for election. But opponents said she should have used the 2011 election, the last time trustees were on the ballot villagewide. That would require about 20 more signatures.
Even judges have said the law is convoluted. It says the requirement is 5 percent of those "who voted at the next preceding regular election in such district or political subdivision in which such district or political subdivision voted as a unit for the election of officers to serve its respective territorial area."
A local electoral panel that included outside attorneys kept Banks and Schelling on the ballot. They said the law was confusing and the two shouldn't be punished for believing the village clerk.
They pointed to a similar 1981 appellate case. In it, the judges said it would be a great injustice to kick candidates off the ballot over the "almost incomprehensible" rules.
Trustee Kory Atkinson pressed on, saying that "these are the rules that everyone has to follow." He appealed to Circuit Court and lost. Then he appealed to appellate court, where the case hangs in limbo, along with Banks and Schelling's candidacies.
Banks estimates the legal battle will easily drain $5,000 from a pool of money he raised from friends and family to campaign.
"When (this happens) at the state level, you can kind of expect it," Banks said. "But we are in Roselle. We are all neighbors. It is silly."
Sauk Village: All in the family
Debbie and Rosie Williams have more than just a political interest in keeping each other on the ballot: Debbie is Rosie's mother.
Still, Debbie Williams, the village clerk, was allowed to cast a vote to keep her daughter on the ballot. And Rosie Williams, a village trustee, was able to do the same for her mother.
The case illustrates just how deep the tangle of interests can get for local election panel members, especially when few conflicts can directly force members to step aside.
This year's election — in a suburb grappling with tainted well water and rising taxes — drew a slew of office seekers, which in turn sparked a slew of objections to their filings. For most, outside panel members were brought in by the courts because of a rule that bans panel members from deciding cases that directly affect their own races.
But there is no explicit ban on broader political interests or family interests. So, when an opponent leveled objections at the Williamses — mostly alleging technical paperwork issues — outside members were not brought in for the cases.
Debbie Williams said the law didn't require her to step down, and she felt she could be fair.
"When I'm at the Village Hall, I'm not Debbie Williams the mom; I'm Debbie Williams the village clerk," she said.
South Chicago Heights: Old ruling cited
Real estate agent Kimberly O'Neill-Palmer followed the state's candidate guidebook as she set out to unseat her six-term mayor.
She got more than enough signatures. She diligently filled out her statement of candidacy and loyalty oath. She filed her disclosure statement with the county, then got a receipt to file with the village clerk.
But buried in those filings was one mistake. She didn't put "Village of South Chicago Heights" on the disclosure statement.
An objection was filed. Then a panel that included the mayor's allies decided the mistake warranted kicking the mayor's opponent off the ballot. In its final decision, the electoral panel cited a 1983 court ruling. O'Neill-Palmer said she didn't have the money to appeal the decision, so she filed as a write-in candidate.
If she did appeal, she may have had an argument to stay on the ballot. The Tribune found other panels, including one in Franklin Park, weighed the same issue this year and didn't remove the candidate, citing more recent court rulings.
"It was a kangaroo court," O'Neill-Palmer said.
Panel members didn't return phone calls seeking comment. But Mayor David Owen said he believes the panel followed the law. His name is now the only one before voters for mayor.
South Elgin: Confusion in the courts
At the bottom of a typical candidate's petition sheets, there is a space to number the page.
For years, failing to consecutively number sheets was often considered such a minor mistake that it didn't warrant kicking candidates off the ballot.
But such a mistake still caused at least six candidates to be kicked off local ballots this year.
One of them was Trustee William DiFulvio in South Elgin.
Faced with an objection over DiFulvio's failure to number his two petition sheets, the local panel decided not to kick him off, saying the mistake "in no way jeopardized the integrity of the election process."
The panel cited several court rulings, including one that let candidates run even when they didn't number more than a dozen pages.
Until 1989, some courts considered failing to number pages to be a technical issue not worthy of restricting ballot access. Several subsequent rulings made clear that at least some of the pages had to be numbered. In one case, a downstate appellate court let a candidate on the ballot even though three of four pages were numbered "1."
In South Elgin, a Kane County judge reversed the local panel's ruling and kicked DiFulvio off the ballot. The judge said he was sympathetic to the panel's argument, but he was ultimately bound by an area appellate court ruling on the issue.
DiFulvio's departure from the ballot — he is now a write-in candidate — left voters with a ballot that lists a choice of just four people for three trustee positions.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun