By Bob Uphues
If you judged a Brookfield election on the amount of heat generated on social media in opposition to the PEP Party's long dominance of the village board, you'd have thought voters were ready to look in a new direction.
But on April 2, PEP swept its eighth straight municipal election, winning all three trustee seats in play and maintaining its hold on every elected office in the village.
Elected to their first terms as trustees were PEP candidates Katie Kaluzny, who topped their field with 1,831 votes, and Brian Conroy with 1,689 votes. Incumbent David LeClere finished third with 1,474 votes, outdistancing Mark Rogers of the Brookfield Community Party, who won 1,116 votes.
Rogers' running mates, Joshua Jones and Tom Galbraith, trailed the field with 826 and 807 votes, respectively.
The Brookfield Community Party engaged with voters through social media, particularly Facebook, posting messages and short videos in the couple of months leading up to the election. But their call for change fell largely on deaf ears.
Rogers said he initially was encouraged by early voting totals, which were 30 percent higher than the last municipal election in 2017. But when the results were in, overall voter turnout in 2019 was historically low for a Brookfield municipal election, at 20.5 percent.
In 2017, when voter turnout was 31 percent, 3,934 people cast ballots. In 2019, the total number of ballots cast fell to 2,715.
"One of our goals, obviously was to get at least one spot on the board," said Rogers, "but a secondary goal was to create voter turnout. We were hopefully looking to get 400+ more votes cast."
What had to discourage Rogers even more is that in Lyons Township, where he lives and where there were contested elementary and high school board races, voter turnout was dismal, at 16.5 percent.
In Proviso Township, historically considered PEP territory, turnout was 22.1 percent. Brookfield's one precinct in Riverside Township, despite no contested grade school or municipal elections, had 28 percent turnout.
It's become clear over the past decade, however, that the old historic divisions within Brookfield are fading. PEP routinely carries Lyons Township precincts nowadays and performed strongly there in 2019.
Rogers did finish first in his home precinct, but just by four votes ahead of Kaluzny. PEP's two other candidates finished third and fourth in the precinct. PEP placed 1-2 in every other precinct in Lyons Township. Rogers finished third in two of the precincts, though he tied with LeClere in one of them.
PEP swept the top three spots in every other precinct in the village.
Kit Ketchmark, who is Brookfield's president and also PEP's chairman, said that the historic north-south division of the village ended for good with the 2016 street bond referendum.
Residents there had harbored resentment for taking on a special assessment for street construction 30 years ago. This time around the cost for repaving those streets was shared by all residents of the village.
"The town's just not divided the way it was anymore," Ketchmark said.
Ketchmark also chalked up PEP's success to its evolution during the past 18 years after suffering a crushing defeat in 2001. The party looked to attract new, younger members, people – like Kaluzny, Conroy, LeClere, Ryan Evans, Nicole Gilhooley, Michelle Ryan, Brian Oberhauser who wanted to be involved on advisory commissions and eventually as candidates for village government.
"I see us more as a caucus, looking for people interested in running that want to be part of Brookfield," Ketchmark said. "We're not just looking for someone to sit in a seat. You can't just show up at election time."
In terms of the low turnout in 2019 and in other recent elections, Ketchmark said the lack of turnout could also indicate voters are happy with the way the village is being run.
"If you're happy with things, you stay home," Ketchmark said. "What's the motivation?"
The Brookfield Community Party ran on a platform of changing the status quo, moving economic development forward at a swifter pace and being more responsive to residents and the business community generally.
They highlighted the significant turnover inside village hall in 2018, which saw the departures of the village manager, planner, public works director and recreation staff.
But voters apparently were convinced the village was on track with a new, experienced manager in place, along with the village's first recreation director in more than a decade, a new village planner and public works director.
"I think we had a good group of candidates and had a group who worked hard to get our message out to voters," said Ketchmark. "And we have a track record as a group. We've done what we've told people we were going to do, and people trust that."
Rogers said he hoped the campaign inspired other residents to become involved in village government and continue to keep village leaders accountable.
"Don't be afraid to ask questions and get involved," Rogers said. "Hopefully, we sparked interest and showed that competition is good."