Kadner: Using political power to swat a pest
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org February 12, 2013 9:14PM
Dwight Welch has been mayor of Country Club Hills for 27 years. | File photo
Updated: March 14, 2013 6:33AM
Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch voted to toss his most vocal political opponent, Ald. Vincent Lockett (2nd), off the April 9 election ballot.
That surprises no one who lives in the city.
Welch is allowed to serve as chairman of the city’s three-member electoral board that sits in judgment on challenges to candidate filings.
“We knew from the beginning we weren’t going to get a fair hearing,” said Tiffany Nelson-Jaworski, an attorney with the law firm of Ancel Glink, who represented Lockett and Ald. Anthony Davis (5th), who was also tossed off the ballot.
It’s important to emphasize that Welch did nothing illegal. He merely exercised the political power granted him by the Legislature. Under the state election code, the mayor is automatically a member of the local electoral board.
Court rulings have made it clear that electoral board members cannot be forced off because of personal or political bias.
So it would be a stupid political move for any mayor to remove himself from an electoral board when he can decide whether to kick his opponents off the ballot at taxpayer expense.
Not only that, but those people running for office have to hire lawyers to try to stay on the ballot.
The one thing the mayor cannot do is sit in judgment of another candidate running for mayor. But aldermen such as Lockett and Davis are fair game.
“What’s needed is a centralized election board like they have in Chicago and Cook County, where impartial people can hear cases without bias and make rulings based on the law,” Nelson-Jaworski said.
Cook County has a three-member election board consisting of the county clerk, state’s attorney and circuit court clerk or their appointees.
They are allowed to hear cases involving candidates for park, library and fire protection district elections but cannot hear cases involving municipal or school board elections.
Nelson-Jaworski said she will file an appeal of the Country Club Hills board’s ruling in Cook County Circuit Court.
At issue in this case are the unreconciled expense accounts of Lockett and Davis.
The claim is that they did not file receipts for some of the money spent from those accounts and thus owe Country Club Hills money. A candidate cannot run for office in Illinois if he owes the government a financial debt.
But Lockett and Davis contend that Country Club Hills has no policy requiring that aldermen file expense receipts on a timely basis.
And the city continued to issue them checks for expenses, even after they allegedly failed to file receipts.
Nelson-Jaworski said if a debt was owed, the mayor, city clerk or city treasurer could have and should have withheld those checks. She also contends that her clients were never notified about any debt.
Those are the legal arguments.
The fact is that for years Country Club Hills has allowed the mayor and aldermen to use their expense accounts like personal piggy banks.
They hand out money to causes they deem worthy. Sometimes they help families who have suffered a personal loss. Sometimes they help personal friends and family members.
It makes the elected officials look like generous guys, although the money they’re spending isn’t their own. It belongs to the local taxpayers.
And over the years it has cost the city hundreds of thousand of dollars.
Welch and the aldermen have all defended the use of the expense accounts, claiming that the money helps the community.
If so, then vote on every financial disbursement at a public meeting. If they’re so proud of the money they’re spending, do it the right way.
At the electoral board hearing for Lockett and Davis, other aldermen testified that there is no policy for reconciling the expense accounts and never has been.
But that didn’t matter to Welch and the city clerk, Deborah McIlvain, who’s also a member of the electoral board.
They voted to kick Lockett and Davis off the ballot. The third board member, Ald. Tyrone Hutson (3rd), voted to keep them on.
As I’ve stated in other columns, this is about the perception of fairness.
There’s no way Lockett could have expected a fair hearing because he has been criticizing Welch, fairly and unfairly, for nearly a decade.
This is about a clear conflict of interest. It’s not in Welch’s interest to allow Lockett to run for re-election.
In fact, Welch supported a successful referendum Nov. 6 that reduced the size of the city council from 10 to 5 after aldermen rebelled against his iron-fisted rule.
Hey, the voters supported the mayor. That’s democracy.
But the way that local election boards are constituted runs contrary to the popular perception that if voters don’t like their elected leaders they can toss them out of office.
Incumbents can use their board positions to keep opponents from running for office and to intimidate those who would even think about it.
In Calumet City, the mayor and her supporters on the election board threw every one of their opponents off the ballot, only to have Cook County judges overrule those decisions on appeal.
But it takes time and money to fight those legal battles. Most people running for a suburban office don’t have thousands of dollars to spend or the time to waste in court.
I doubt the Legislature will reform the process.
There’s a reason Illinois is known as one of the most corrupt states in the country, and it’s not all about public officials going to prison.
The system is rigged by the powerful for the powerful.
Welch used his power to swat a political foe who had been pestering him.
And that’s exactly why this election law exists.