Last month, young people from Illinois PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), clipboards in hand, descended on Forest Park, knocking on doors and giving a pitch to residents about a campaign to stop federal farm subsidies for agribusinesses producing corn syrup and other junk food ingredients allegedly fueling the American obesity epidemic.
The PIRG canvassers were in town despite maneuvers by the Forest Park Village Council over the past nine months to keep them out, initiated, it would seem, by Commissioner Tom Mannix.
“This is a case of national right-wing politics being brought into the local village council level,” said Commissioner Rory Hoskins last week, referring to Mannix’s efforts.
PIRG calls itself a non-partisan group dedicated to issues that affect Illinois and citizens nationally. But some perceive it as having a left-wing agenda.
When asked about the PIRG requests last week, Mannix said the group’s political leanings had no impact on his vote. “I personally don’t like people who come and ring doorbells at 8:30 at night asking for money,” Mannix said.
As it turns out, no special permit is required from the village for PIRG to canvas. Canvassers showed up through the month of May and knocked on doors, asking for money and support.
“We are not required to get a solicitation request approved by the village council in order to canvass in Forest Park,” said PIRG supervisor Marites Velasquez in an email. “The type of outreach we do is protected under the First Amendment freedom of speech,” she continued. The group was only required to submit a list of canvassers every day to the police department.
It started when PIRG’s solicitation request showed up on the agenda of the Sept. 24, 2012 village council meeting, alongside requests from local firefighters to solicit funds for Muscular Dystrophy and a request for the Lions Club candy sale.
The PIRG campaign at the time was a campaign finance reform drive to protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to allow “corporate spending by a handful of millionaires to influence elections,” according to the PIRG website.
At that meeting, Mannix alleged the PIRG group’s requests were “incomplete” and suggested that tabling the request would “better serve the interests of the residents of Forest Park.” The council voted 3-2 to table the request, with commissioners Hoskins and Chris Harris voting nay.
After the vote, Hoskins warned that the village might be perceived as discriminating against one group over another for political reasons. “I understand the need for background checks,” he said, adding PIRG had been around for decades and canvassers were usually college students.
PIRG’s documentation, Sept. 24, was much more complete than the fellow agenda requests from other groups. Several pages long, PIRG’s request provided names and addresses of every canvasser. The firefighters and Lion’s Club requests were one-page letters noting the dates of the charity drives.
Mannix said last week he asked for more information at the September 2012 meeting because firefighters and Lion’s Club members were not “going door to door.” But the council had approved a Girl Scout request to sell cookies door-to-door the previous month without comment.
At the next meeting Oct. 9, PIRG submitted even more documentation: a list of solicitors by name, an Illinois Charitable Organization Report, a corporate file certificate for the Illinois Secretary of State, and a supporting letter from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.
But when the agenda item came up, Commissioner Mark Hosty said he had not previously seen it on the agenda and said it was a surprise to him. Hosty told the council he needed time to read the documents and asked the council to table the motion again.
Again, the council voted 3-2 to table the motion with Hoskins and Harris voting nay and Hosty, Mannix and Mayor Anthony Calderone voting to table.
Then in May, PIRG started their recent campaign against subsidies for junk food ingredients.
The group’s solicitation request came up on the May 13 village council agenda.
This time, not a single commissioner would even make a motion to approve the group’s application for a permit.
“The motion dies,” said Calderone, and quickly moved on to the next agenda item.
When asked why he didn’t even make a motion so the matter could be discussed, Hoskins said he “regretted not making a motion on that.”
“You just have to pick your battles,” Hoskins said, adding, “If [PIRG] decided to sue the village over this, I wouldn’t be surprised.” Hoskins said the village’s machinations were influenced by “national right-wing agendas.”
Harris also seemed to express regret for not making the motion May 13, in hindsight in an email: “[PIRG]’s request has been shot down by Mannix/Hosty each time it comes up, and it would have again. Is that a reason not to make a motion? No. It should have been, just so they could have [voted against it] again,” said Harris, who thinks the perception of PIRG as a progressive liberal group was behind the vote.
“If it came up again, and it should, I would make the motion or second it,” Harris added. “I don’t think it’s our job as a council to suppress groups based on perceived political leanings. That’s just wrong.”
“They have no political courage” was how Mannix last week characterized the inaction by Hoskins and Harris at the May 13 meeting. “They have just as much right as I do to make a motion and second it and vote it up and down.”
The last time all council members declined to allow a motion to get to vote on a village agenda item was when Scratch Kitchen applied for a liquor license in December 2012. Harris made the motion to allow the liquor license, but no other commissioner would second the motion. Owner Patrick O’Brien begged for a second consideration and a community Facebook Page supporting the restaurant’s plight quickly garnered more than 400 “likes.” The council approved the liquor license at the next council meeting.
This aritcle was updated to correct the description of the Dec. 12 Village Council meeting.