Kadner: An unfair fight in Country Club Hills
By Phil Kadner email@example.com January 25, 2013 10:00PM
Country Club Hills Ald. Steven Burris (left) and City Clerk Deborah Mcllvain (center) sort through testimony involving alderman candidate Marchel'le Barber (right)'s water bills during an election board hearing. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 28, 2013 6:54AM
An attorney will ask a Cook County Circuit Court judge on Monday to disqualify all three members of the Country Club Hills Election Board.
For nearly 10 years, Ald. Vincent Lockett (2nd) has ridiculed Mayor Dwight Welch in the harshest terms for his leadership of the city.
Now, Welch, as chairman of the city’s election board, will help decide whether Lockett’s name can appear on the April 9 election ballot.
The feud between Welch and a faction of the city council led by Lockett became so heated that Welch spearheaded a campaign to place a referendum on the ballot last year, reducing the size of the council from 10 to 5. Voters approved the idea.
But Lockett’s attorney is not challenging Welch’s ability to sit in judgment of Lockett’s candidacy based on their personal feud.
A previous court decision states that no local election board member in Illinois can be removed based on “person or political bias.”
That in itself ought to tell you how biased the process has become when candidates in the suburbs try to run for mayor, trustee, alderman or school board member.
But if you need further proof, there’s the challenge to Lockett’s candidacy.
Lockett and Ald. Anthony Davis (5th) are being challenged in their re-election bids because they failed to reconcile their city council expense accounts.
What does that mean? Essentially, that they failed to provide receipts for money they spent out of those accounts.
Under the Illinois Election Code, a person can’t run for election in a municipality if he owes money to it.
Lockett contends that aldermen have always received monthly expense checks without having to reconcile their previous expenses. His attorney wants to call the mayor, city clerk and all the aldermen as witnesses before the election board to testify that there is no policy for reconciling expenses.
On Friday, the election board ruled that its three members (Welch, Clerk Deborah McIlvain and Ald. Steven Burris) could not testify, contending that any testimony they might offer could be provided by other witnesses.
Tiffany Nelson-Jaworski, the lawyer for Lockett, claimed that Welch and McIlvain could offer unique testimony because they signed off on the expense checks issued to Lockett and Davis and could explain why they continued to approve the checks without receipts.
As for Burris (4th), he is chairman of the council’s finance committee and as such oversees discussions surrounding the payment of city bills.
Nelson-Jaworski also is seeking disqualification of the election board because Lockett is part of a lawsuit against the city regarding the reduction of the city council.
““It’s just a big old pile of bull,” Lockett told me about the election board and the charges filed against him. “Why were they issuing me checks for $2,250 a month for expenses if receipts were required for prior expenses?
“They should have stopped issuing expense checks until the receipts were provided. But (receipts) weren’t required, so they kept issuing the checks, which is what they’ve always done.”
Whether or not Lockett is technically in violation of election law, Welch should not be allowed to sit in judgment of his candidacy because that would make the process appear unfair and biased.
Another candidate running for 5th Ward alderman, Marchel’le “Martha” Barber, appeared before the election board on Friday because she allegedly owed $27 on her water bill. She said she was initially not informed about the overdue bill, paid everything that was owed before she filed for office in December and then paid the $27 after learning it was due.
But Matthew Welch (no relation to the mayor), the attorney representing the challenger to Barber, said the fact that she paid the $27 was an admission of guilt under the law.
Barber contended that she was told by an employee of the city clerk’s office early in December how much she owed and paid that amount before filing to run for office.
But that didn’t matter either. The law is that no matter what a municipal employee tells you, you owe whatever the government says its paperwork indicates you owe.
Finally, Barber noted that Country Club Hills’ water bills have a date showing when payment is due, but no date showing when the bill was actually issued or mailed. In theory, a bill could be issued after the date it was due and no one could tell.
But Barber, who is not an attorney and did not have one representing her at the election board, failed to make that point.
I doubt it would have mattered.
Dwight Welch and McIlvain voted to kick Barber off the ballot, and Burris, so frustrated by the convoluted arguments at one point that he put his head in his hands, voted to keep Barber on.
This entire process is costing taxpayers a lot of employee time and money. An attorney for the election board and a court reporter are required and they aren’t cheap.
While the candidates pay attorneys out of their pocket, city employees must spend time copying documents and appearing as witnesses. And there will be court hearings that will cost taxpayers more money.
“This is simply a frivolous challenge,” Lockett’s attorney said.
I would add that no candidate should ever be kicked off a ballot for an unpaid $27 water bill, especially if she paid that bill.
“Our state senators and representatives need to change this process,” Lockett said. “People need to appeal to them to make it a fair process.”
I have done that repeatedly, with no response whatsoever from Southland legislators.
Cook County Clerk David Orr, the chief election official in the suburbs, has called for change, with no effect.
The process stinks.