It’s very likely North Riverside voters will get to choose from two full slates of candidates in the village trustee election on April 7 after the local electoral board threw out a challenge to the nominating petitions submitted by the VIP Party.
At a hearing held at the North Riverside Village Commons on Wednesday afternoon, the electoral board, comprising Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr., Village Clerk Kathy Ranieri and Trustee Vera Wilt, voted unanimously and without deliberation to dismiss the challenge filed Dec. 30, 2014 by resident Annabelle Downs.
“I’m certainly not surprised,” said Downs’ attorney Lawrence Zdarsky, “but I’m not displeased that the objector decided to move forward.”
Zdarsky’s doubts going into the challenge stemmed from the fact that the electoral board was made up entirely of VIP Party members determining the fate of their own party’s slate of candidates, something he pointed out to the board during the roughly two-hour hearing.
“I know this is difficult,” Zdarsky told the electoral board. “I don’t want to be in your shoes. Either you’re knocking your friends off the ballot of forcing the issue of allowing someone on the ballot who hasn’t complied with the law.”
In the end, the electoral board’s attorney, Burt Odelson — who was hired by Hermanek after his election as mayor in 2013 and serves as the North Riverside Village Board’s attorney — convinced the three-member panel that the VIP Party candidates’ petitions did comply with the law.
“It’s an easy call, for me,” Odelson said.
Downs’ challenge hinged on two things. The first was that the VIP candidates used petition forms that were slightly different. One clearly stated that the candidates on the petition were forming a new party to run in the April 7 election. The other did not.
Zdarsky argued that election law mandated that the forms be identical and that the different forms sowed confusion.
“There is no compliance,” Zdarsky said. “Electoral boards have thrown people off the ballot for much less egregious errors.”
Specifically, Zdarsky pointed to a VIP Party-controlled North Riverside electoral board’s decision in 2013 to disqualify an entire slate of rival candidates running under the Transparency & Accountability in Politics Party (TAP) banner largely on the basis of the inclusion of the ampersand in the party’s name.
The ampersand, the board ruled at the time, made the party name one word too long. Downs was a member of that rival slate and Zdarsky represented that slate as well. The ruling was later reversed by the Illinois Court of Appeals.
“I’d argue that two years ago knocking somebody off the ballot for having an ampersand in the party name was trifling and insignificant,” Zdarsky said.
The other prong of the challenge hinged on Downs’ contention that VIP’s candidates failed to file the correct petition forms and follow the correct filing schedule, because the party was actually not a new party but an established party.
Zdarsky called two witnesses to testify with regard to that argument, H. Bob Demopoulos and Marybelle Mandel, both trustee candidates running with the Save Our Firefighters slate. Two years ago Mandel ran as a TAP Party candidate; Demopoulos supported that slate.
The electoral board denied Zdarsky’s request to issue a subpoena to compel former Mayor and VIP Party Chairman Kenneth Krochmal to testify as well.
A key part of that testimony concerned documents VIP filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections. Zdarsky argued that the documents prove the party simply amended its political committee by changing its name and never actually formed a separate, new committee.
However, Odelson pointed out that political committee filings were not relevant to the case. Rather, Odelson said, the new party was created by citizens signing the nominating petitions themselves. The nominating petitions are the documents that create the new party, he said.
“The statute clearly says that the people signing the petitions form the new party and this is the party name,” said Odelson.
Odelson also agreed with the VIP Party’s attorney, James Nally, that the election code does not mandate that the petition forms have been completely identical in all respects, a position Zdarsky continued to maintain after the electoral board ruled.
“Our objections were legitimate,” Zdarsky said.
However, it appeared unlikely that Downs’ will appeal the electoral board’s ruling. An appeal to the Cook County Circuit Court must be filed within 10 days of the board’s final decision being entered. The final decision is slated to be signed on Jan. 19.
“I don’t know if we’re going any further on this,” said Zdarsky, who was still stinging from the treatment TAP candidates received at the hands of the electoral board in 2013.
“Two years ago if the board had used the same logic and the same standards, TAP would have never been taken off the ballot,” Zdarsky said. “We had no delusions, but we felt it was important to bring it to the board’s attention.”