Updated 10/09/10
Riverside residents overwhelmingly threw their support behind the village’s now-defunct parks and recreation board on Nov. 2, voting almost 4 to 1 to retain the board as a separate entity.

According to figures released last week by the Cook County Clerk, 61.6 percent of registered voters in Riverside turned out for the election, which featured a couple of other important statewide races for governor and senator. In suburban Cook County, voter turnout was 51 percent.

The only specifically local question on the ballot concerned the recreation board, with 2,704 (78.6 percent) voting to retain the board and 737 (21.4 percent) voting against. Since the referendum was advisory only, the village board is not required to honor the results.

“I felt confident going to the polls, but I was surprised by the magnitude of it,” said Ben Sells, a sitting trustee who helped spearhead a petition drive to get the question on the ballot.

“What’s encouraging is that we had this kind of turnout in the face of the village board having already made the decision,” Sells said.

The village board earlier this year proposed abolishing the recreation board and replacing it with a less-autonomous advisory commission, an act that prompted a petition drive to get an advisory question on the Nov. 2 ballot to see whether voters agreed.

Despite appeals to wait until the vote to make their decision, trustees voted in September to dissolve the recreation board. The advisory commission has not yet been formed.

Trustee Lonnie Sacchi, a main architect of the plan to dissolve the recreation board, said that most people were probably confused by the question, which he said “was not thoroughly vetted out.”

“Most people equate that question with the function of recreation in the village,” Sacchi said. “The right question to ask was, ‘Do you or do you not want an organized recreation function in the village?’ Why should that function be delivered any differently that any other in the village?”

When asked about the 1937 binding referendum that created the recreation system and board, Sacchi said that residents at the time had no other choice than to create a board if they created a recreation function. That requirement no longer exists.

“People in 1937 and in 2010 want organized recreation,” Sacchi said. “The board has stated over and over and over to these people that we will do that.”

Joseph Ballerine, a former member of the recreation board who worked with Sells to organize the petition drive, said he was grateful to residents for their support but was unsure whether the vote would resonate with the village board majority that voted to dissolve the recreation board.

“I honestly don’t know,” Ballerine said. “But the sign of a good leader is recognizing when you make a mistake and correct that.”

A total of 3,441 people cast votes in Riverside on the referendum question. As a comparison, 2,628 people cast ballots during the April 2009 village elections. In 2007, when a controversial advisory referendum about establishing a TIF district was on the ballot, 2,217 people cast ballots.

The 2008 presidential election, which included a binding referendum question to increase property taxes in Riverside, drove an 82 percent turnout. A total of 4,736 people cast ballots on the tax referendum, soundly defeating it.

The last midterm election in 2006 also drew a strong local response. In addition to a governor’s race that included a local Riverside candidate, the ballot also included an advisory referendum for a bond issue to build a pedestrian tunnel connecting the train station platforms.

In that referendum 3,587 people cast ballots, easily defeating the $4 million bond issue.