A bar owner has asked the state’s highest court to rethink a recent court decision that put a binding referendum question on an upcoming election ballot.

James Watts, owner of O’Sullivan’s Public House, filed an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court on May 17, asking the state’s highest court to knock the question “Shall video gaming be prohibited in the village of Forest Park” off the November ballot.

The question is binding, which means that if a majority of Forest Parkers were to vote against the practice, video gaming — which is now allowed — will be outlawed in the village.

Watts did not respond to an interview request.

“The court can take the time it deems necessary,” said attorney James Nally, who represents Watts. “The current term of the court ends June 30. They may take it up before the end of the term.”

Nally added that Watts would not have filed for an appeal “if we didn’t think we had a good legal basis to do so.”

Watts appealed to the Supreme Court after a petition for a rehearing by the Illinois Court of Appeals was denied on April 13. Watts had 35 days to ask the Supreme Court to consider the case. He waited until the last day to appeal the Supreme Court.

“They’re going to do what they want to do and what they have money for. I think it’s a little blatant that they’re trying to run the clock and get us to spend as much money as they can. They’re better financed than we are,” said Jordan Kuehn, president of Let Forest Park Vote on Video Gaming, a political action committee that brought the video gaming case to the Forest Park Electoral Board, Cook County Circuit Court and the appellate court.

On March 16, the appellate court overturned a circuit court ruling that upheld the local electoral board’s decision to nullify referendum petitions, putting the binding referendum on the November ballot.

“They’re exhausting every avenue they can which, to me, says they’re scared of the vote,” Kuehn said. “If they weren’t scared of the vote, they wouldn’t be spending all this money in court.” 

Watts’ appeal disputes the finding of the appellate court, and said the decision to put the referendum on the November ballot “violates the integrity of the election process,” is “improper” and resulted from “chicanery.”

The appeal argues that because the petitions submitted by Let Forest Park Vote contained dissimilar petition page headings, the group confused voters and defied legal precedence.

Six of the petition sheets featured an incorrect referendum date of Nov. 8, 2016, and contained less than 100 of the nearly 3,000 valid signatures on the petitions. The rest of the more than 275 petition pages stated that voters will decide on the question “at the next regular election occurring not less than 92 days after the filing of this petition.”

The differing headings violate Illinois general election code 28-3, which states “the heading of each sheet shall be the same.” The appeal argues that law requires mandatory compliance with that law.

“Simply ignoring the mandatory requirements of [the law], to obviate an admittedly harsh result, is not allowed under the law,” the appeal states.

The appeal then quotes a member from the Forest Park Electoral Board, Thomas Mannix, who said at a Jan. 23 hearing, “This is a pretty cut-and-dried issue. It’s ‘shall be the same.’ They’re not the same. And asks us as an electoral board to say we’re going to ignore that, I don’t think it’s appropriate from a legal perspective.”

The appeal also said that the appellate court’s decision to overturn the Forest Park Electoral Board’s finding did not meet a legal standard demanding acceptance of the lower court’s findings of fact unless the appellate court is firmly convinced that a mistake was made.

“Courts should give deference to the electoral board’s interpretation of the provision of the election code,” the appeal reads.

Kuehn said he was somewhat surprised that Watts took the case to the Supreme Court, but said he felt the issue of “strict” versus “substantial” compliance with Illinois election law was good to debate “so someone else doesn’t have to go through this rigmarole and all that. That will be helpful to lots of grassroots initiatives across the state.”

CONTACT: ntepper@wjinc.com

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