Kadner: Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch allowed to rule on his worst critic’s ballot status
By Phil Kadner email@example.com January 28, 2013 4:58PM
Board members Ald. Steven Burris (center) and City Clerk Deborah Mcllvain (right) listen to testimony during an election board hearing on challenges to aldermanic candidates' petitions in Country Club Hills. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 2, 2013 6:09AM
Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch will remain chairman of the city electoral board, which will determine whether his chief critic on the city council can remain on the ballot in April.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Edmund Ponce de Leon on Monday refused a request to disqualify Welch and city Clerk Deborah McIlvain from sitting on the electoral board. But the judge did disqualify Ald. Steven Burris (4th) from the board.
Attorney Tiffany Nelson-Jaworski, representing aldermen Vincent Lockett (2nd) and Anthony Davis (5th), both seeking re-election April 9, wanted to call the entire electoral board as witnesses for her clients.
The candidacies of Lockett and Davis are being challenged on grounds they failed to provide receipts for their aldermanic expense accounts — meaning they owe money to the city that automatically disqualifies them from the ballot.
Nelson-Jaworski contends that Welch and McIlvain co-signed expense checks for Lockett and Davis, even after they allegedly failed to provide receipts for prior expenses, thereby indicating the aldermen did not owe the city money.
“Why didn’t the mayor just use his veto power over the checks if he felt the expense accounts had not been reconciled?” Nelson-Jaworski said she would have asked the mayor if he had appeared as a witness. “I contend he did not veto the expense checks because there was no policy requiring that they be reconciled.”
Ponce de Leon ruled that Welch and McIlvain were not essential witnesses because their testimony could be obtained from other witnesses, such as Country Club Hills aldermen.
Burris, however, was disqualified from the electoral board because he chairs the city council’s finance committee, which discusses and votes on city bills before they are approved by the full council. Burris, therefore, should be available as a witness before the electoral board, the judge ruled.
Ald. Tyrone Hutson (3rd), once an ally of the mayor’s, will replace Burris on the election board.
Lockett and Davis had also asked the judge to remove Welch and McIlvain from the board because they are parties to a lawsuit that challenges a successful referendum that reduced the size of the council from 10 aldermen to five. McIlvain is a plaintiff in the lawsuit and, while Welch is not named, he is the executive of the city that is named.
But the judge apparently did not believe the lawsuit would bias Welch and McIlvain as electoral board members.
Under the Illinois Election Code, local electoral boards consist of the mayor, city or village clerk and the longest-serving member of the city council/village board. They hear and rule on challenges filed against candidates. A similar law applies to school boards.
But a Cook County Electoral Board consisting of the county clerk, state’s attorney and circuit court clerk (or their representatives) rules on challenges against candidates for park, library and fire protection district boards.
“It’s a much fairer process,” Nelson-Jaworski, who has represented candidates before both types of boards, said of the Cook County Electoral Board. “It eliminates the perception that there’s a conflict of interest or personal bias.”
In Country Club Hills, Lockett has spent nearly a decade as a thorn in the side of Welch, ridiculing his administration of the city.
The extravagant expense accounts allowed the mayor and aldermen in Country Club Hills have been the subject of intense public scrutiny.
“I don’t believe that there is a policy — I will call it ‘alleged policy’ because I don’t believe it exists — regarding those expense accounts,” Nelson-Jaworski said. “That’s why I wanted to call the mayor and will now call Burris and other aldermen as witnesses at Friday’s hearing.
“There is no written policy regarding the reconciliation of aldermanic expense accounts, so my clients could not have owed any debt to the city.”
Regardless of the outcome of the electoral board process, the fact is that any objective person would understand that Welch cannot be considered an unbiased finder of fact. Lockett ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Welch in 2011.
Yet under previous court rulings, no electoral board member can be challenged based on personal or political bias.
Ponce de Leon, by the way, is the same judge who in an unprecedented ruling earlier this year disqualified the Cicero Electoral Board and Mayor Larry Dominick.
I realize that many folks may look at this issue as simply politics as usual and irrelevant to their lives.
But this is an issue that cuts to the heart of grass-roots politics. It’s about ordinary people, in many cases, who decide to run for office in their village or want to improve their schools.
During each election cycle, many of these candidates quickly discover they’re being kicked off the ballot by the political allies of the people they’re trying to replace.
To defend themselves, they’re forced to spend thousands of dollars on attorneys and take time away from work and their campaigns to appear at hearings and court proceedings.
These are not professional politicians. They’re just ordinary citizens who believe in the democratic process.
State legislators need to make sure the local electoral process is fairer — not only for those who choose to run but for the voters who have the right to an election process that’s open to all.
I don’t care if Lockett’s name appears on the ballot or if he is re-elected. Welch might vote to keep Lockett and Davis on the ballot.
But I do know that Welch shouldn’t be in the position of making such a decision.
That’s the law. And it’s a bad one.