By Nona Tepper
A Cook County judge on Feb. 21 upheld the ruling of the village's electoral board, essentially ending the debate over whether a binding referendum question will be included on an upcoming election ballot.
After hearing arguments from pro- and anti- video gaming lawyers, Associate Judge James Carroll decided to disqualify more than 275 pages of referendum petitions submitted by the political action committee Let Forest Park Vote on Video Gaming because of the dissimilar headings and group's delay in submitting the petitions.
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 other petition heading said that voters will decide on the question "at the next regular election occurring not less than 92 days after the filing of this petition." Let Forest Park Vote began collecting referendum signatures in November 2016, and submitted their petitions to the village more than a years later.
The varying headers and 13-month filing delay "provided basis for voter confusion for when the referendum would be voted on, it makes no difference voters would see only the petition they sign," Carroll in Cook County Circuit Court.
Carroll cited the 1989 case of "Citizens for a United Park District," a group that filed a petition to get a new Park District in Maywood and whose petitions were thrown out because their headings were not uniform. Looking to this case for legal precedence, Carroll said "Citizens for a United Park District" mandates strict compliance with the Illinois general election code 28-3, which states "the heading of each sheet shall be the same."
"While the court finds the result may seem harsh, it is based on the clear language of 28-3," Carroll said, later adding: "The Appellate Court specifically found the mandatory heading requirement of 28-3 protects voters of any potential misrepresentation."
By having voters sign a petition for a binding referendum to be voted on at the next regular election, and then waiting two years to file the petitions, the "court found also that could create an instance for voter confusion," Carroll said. Let Forest Park Vote began collecting referendum signatures in November 2016, and the next general election would have been April 2017. The group submitted the petitions eight months later.
But, "I talked to hundreds of voters, no one was confused," said Jordan Kuehn, president of Let Forest Park Vote.
Kuehn said he felt disappointed with Carroll's ruling and that it was "obviously a mistake." He said the group will likely appeal the decision.
"We haven't got on the ballot yet, but we still have a chance," Kuehn said.
Carroll's ruling upheld the January decision of the village electoral board to disqualify the group's entire set of petitions. James Watts, a Madison Street bar owner, had challenged Let Forest Park Vote's referendum petition. That challenge was heard by the three-person electoral board made up of Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone, Clerk Vanessa Moritz and Commissioner Tom Mannix. The board decided to throw out all the petitions because of the six mismatched headers. Village Attorney Tom Bastian said the village should throw out just the six petitions that featured Nov. 8, 2016 headers.
"We had six sheets accidentally submitted by one petitioner, it seems ridiculous to throw out the whole pile of sheets," Kuehn said.
If Let Forest Park Vote does appeal the village electoral board and Cook County judge's decision, they will seek to get the question "Shall video gaming be prohibited in the village of Forest Park" on an upcoming ballot. Let Forest Park Vote's 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.
The pro-referendum group originally wanted to get its question on the March 20 primary ballot, but three advisory referendum questions had already been submitted for that ballot in November 2016. Only three questions are allowed on any ballot per state law.
This story has been updated to reflect that Let Forest Park Vote on Video Gaming submitted their petitions to the village 13-months after they began collecting signatures.