Petition objections used as a ‘political hit’
FromChicagoHeights to Tinley Park, potential candidates for public office throughout the Southland have hurled accusations of shenanigans and allegations of political dirty tricks over the last twoweeks.
As theApril 2 consolidated election approaches, local officials have gathered in several south suburban communities to conduct an often overlooked and misunderstood part of the democratic process.
Municipal electoral boards have met to decide formal objections to nominating petitions filed by candidates seeking public office. Boards have heard objections in ChicagoHeights, Flossmoor, Homer Glen, Markham, Matteson, Orland Park and Tinley Park.
An electoral board in Cook County is considering objections to dozens of candidates for local school boards throughout the south suburbs and other regions of the county.
Political newcomers challenging incumbents in power often cry “foul” whenmayors, clerks and trustees who sit on electoral boards decide the fate of objections.
Critics often question the integrity of electoral board members and their ability to decide disputes in an objective and impartial manner. Some believe objections are evidence of an unfair or “rigged” political system.
In most cases, electoral board members typically are not experts in election law.
“I can assure you everybody on
this panel is not happy to be here, butwe’re going to do our job,” Flossmoor Mayor Paul Braun told an audience of about 50 residentsWednesday as he chaired an electoral board meeting.
“We sit here not asmayor, clerk and trustees” but as jurors, he said.
Alawyer almost always advises electoral boards. Often, the village or city attorney serves as counsel and provides information about requirements for seeking public office. Petition challenges are common in elections, though rare in some towns.
The processmay seem unfamiliar to candidates who defend themselves fromclaims by objectors who are represented by attorneys. Some defend the system by saying if a candidate cannot followthe rules for filing petitions, that person is unfit to vote on ordinances, decide how taxpayer dollars are spent and other duties of public office.
Sometimes, objections seem to hinge on interpretations of vaguewording within the Illinois Election Code.
Illinois legislators, it seems, could have done a better job, at times, writing election rules that are clear and easy to follow. Judges, instead of lawmakers, seem to determine many of the rules. Disputes over interpretations of the Election Code often lead to lawsuits. Attorneys for candidates and objectors often cite case lawto argue on behalf of a position.
State lawdefines electoral boards as “quasi-judicial” proceedings, meaning they’re sort of like appearing in court, but not quite. Homewood-based attorney PatrickKeating, representing trustee candidateDavid Bruni in Flossmoor Wednesday, at one point argued that electoral boards have broad discre- tion to decide whether petitions thatwere not “neatly fastened” were still in “substantial compliance” with the law.
“The case lawis so all over the map that this board can do whatever it wants,” Keating argued. “This is a quasi-legal, quasi-political proceeding.”
Keating is among a parade of lawyers representing candidates and objectors who have appeared at recent proceedings. In ChicagoHeights, attorney Michael Kasper recently made a brief appearance to defend a challenge to the candidacy of MayorDavid Gonzalez. Kasper is general counsel and treasurer of the Democratic Party of Illinois.
The ChicagoHeights electoral board tossed threewould-bemayoral challengers off the ballot, leaving Gonzalez unopposed inApril. The board also overruled the objection to Gonzalez’s petitions.
Another heavyweight in the field of election law appeared inMarkham on Wednesday. Burt Odelson of Evergreen Park-based Odelson& Sterk counseled MayorRoger Agpawa and the electoral board as it met to consider objections to petitions filed by candidates for trustee.
I asked Odelson about a 2012 nonbinding opinion issued byAttorney General LisaMadigan that said electoral board proceedingswere subject to requirements of the Open MeetingsAct. The attorney general wrote that electoral boards should allowopportunity for public comment. Markham’s electoral board did not provide opportunity for public comment on its agenda.
“That’s the attorney general’s opinion,” Odelson said. He meant that’s all it is— an opinion. It doesn’t carry theweight of case law.
An assistant with Odelson chimed in that allowing electoral board mem- bers to hear opinions expressed by members of the public could prejudice the panel before it decides a case.
I pointed out that in Flossmoor, the electoral board heard public comment at the end of its meeting, after deliberations.
Tinley Park’s electoral board also heard public comments Friday. The village of 56,000 residents was incorporated in 1892. Only once previously in the village’s history has an electoral board met to consider petition objections, and thatwas for a referendum, Mayor Jacob Vandenberg said.
“We’re making history,” VillageAttorney Patrick Connelly said.
Eight people filed petitions for three seats on the Tinley ParkVillage Board. Three people— ChristopherMugavero, Kimberly Mugavero and Patricia Johnson— collectively filed objections to the petitions of independent candidates Brian Godlewski, JeffreyMech and ChristopherCwik.
“This is all a political hit job,” Cwik told the board.
One of the objectors, ChristopherMugavero, signedCwik’s nominating petition and is not a registered voter at the address he claimed, Cwik said. The objectionmay be invalid if Megavero objected to his own signature, said electoral board member Thomas Jaconetty.
Scott Erdman, an attorney representing the objectors, said even if one objectorwas invalidated, two potentially valid objectors remained.
They decided to ask clerks in Cook andWill counties to examine the petitions. The board will reconvene at 4 p.m. Jan. 15 to consider the findings.
Cwik said he spent months going door to door collecting signatures.
“Iwas born and raised here,” he said. “I think it’s a shame the three (inde- pendent candidates) got hit by a certain political entity in town.”
Cwik claimed the slate of OneTinley Park candidateswas behind the objections. Other candidates are running as the Concerned Citizens slate.
James Doyle, a resident who spoke during public comment, said kicking candidates off the ballot would do a disservice to voters.
“The more the better,” Doyle said. “Voters need to have as many options as possible.… The objections have an air of super-silliness to them.”
Jaconetty said hewas appointed to Tinley Park’s board by the chief judge of CookCounty because of potential appearances of conflict. Typically, trustees or aldermen with the most service are the third member of an electoral board. But in the upcoming Tinley Park election, the most senior trusteeswere disqualified by statute from serving on the electoral board, Jaconetty said.
Jaconetty represented former Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios when Berrios challenged the petitions of Assessor Fritz Kaegi last year. Kaegi’s candidacywas upheld and hewent on to defeat Berrios in the 2018 Democratic primary.
Jaconetty has presented annual Chicago BarAssociation seminars on “RemovingYour Opponent from the Ballot: Objections to Nomination Papers.”
“The last several years they’ve castme in the role ofDarthVadar,” Jaconetty joked.
Seminar materials published online showsuch tips as, “MythNo. 1: No one will notice,” and“Warning No. 1: There are expert political organizations that delight in dissecting your petitions and turning your life into abject misery.”