: Attorney Adam Lasker speaks to members of the Forest Park Electoral Board Sept. 8. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Kuehn).
A village election board Sept. 8 knocked off the November ballot a citizen’s binding referendum to keep video gambling out of the Village of Forest Park after the board determined petitioners failed to acquire enough signatures.
The case took three hearings with both sides hiring veteran Chicago election lawyers. In the end, though, opponents of the referendum prevailed with the argument that the citizen group had failed to account for 1,002 “inactive voters” in the town with a population of around 14,000.
A petition challenge by a brother of two town tavern owners raised the signature threshold too high. Relaxed voting rules in Cook County were brought to light when even the 37-year-old Realtor bankrolling the citizen referendum admitted he had never changed his voter registration from his parents’ home address.
Video gambling is currently illegal in Forest Park, one of fewer than 40 municipalities outside the City of Chicago to outlaw state-sponsored video gambling. In 2013, citizens voted 2-to-1 to continue to ban video gambling in an advisory referendum. But bar owners have clamored for video gambling revenue and say neighboring towns steal their customers.
Evergreen Park-based attorney Bert Odelson, challenging the referendum, argued that “inactive voters” — those who had never changed their status despite bounced mail from the County Clerk’s office — must be counted in the pool of “legal voters.”
The board agreed that the total number of registered voters in Forest Park on March 14, 2016 — the last day to register to vote before the election — was 8,713 active and 1,002 inactive voters.
These extra voters were a surprise to the Say Yes to a Vote group, who had received a certified statement from Cook County Clerk David Orr’s office in August saying the number of registered voters in Forest Park on March 17 was around 8,800.
Colleen Gleason, a subpoenaed employee of the Clerk’s office, testified that she had been unable to provide the number of inactive voters on a past date (March 17) when called in August by citizen petitioners.
The anti-gambling camp suffered a blow when Realtor Patrick Jacknow, who had been paying the legal bills, admitted he had never changed his own voter registration address from his parents’ house since he was 18.
“I don’t think you really do know what a registered voter is, do you?” Odelson asked him. Odelson later characterized Jacknow with vivid legal terminology saying “[Jacknow] himself comes in with unclean hands.”
Attorney Adam W. Lasker from Ancel Glink argued that binding election case law said the board must overrule the signature requirement by applying the doctrine of “estoppal” — based on four elements: The rule for petitions was ambiguous; an official agency supplied incorrect information; the petitioners had relied on that information to their detriment; and the petitioners had shown significant community participation.
“It will be an injustice if these referendum petitions are made invalid,” Lasker said.
The legalese threatened to overwhelm electoral board members, Mayor Anthony Calderone, a village commissioner and the village clerk.
“You know, the doctrine of estoppal certainly would not be overly burdensome if we had an electoral board made up of three judges or for that matter, three attorneys,” Calderone said. “In our particular case, the three of us up here are simply public servants.”
Attorneys for both sides blamed vague language in the Illinois Gaming Act, passed in 2009, which stated that a binding referendum banning video gambling could be placed on a ballot with valid signatures from 25 percent of a town’s “legal voters.” For elected officials, a percentage of the votes cast in the last election is usually the number of petition signatures.
At one point it seemed that the two groups were one signature away from agreeing on a number. The board agreed that the total number of eligible voters was 9,715 and that the group needed 2,429 to get onto the ballot. After challenges, the citizen’s group had 2,267 valid signatures, plus two categories of petition signers who might be eligible for “rehabilitation.”
Lawyer Adam Lasker presented affidavits from 116 voters whose signatures had been thrown out by the Clerk’s office and up to 47 voters who disputed that they were not listed as registered, or possibly 2,430 valid signatures.
But instead of going through pages of documents, the board voted to reject the estoppal argument, with village attorney Thomas Bastian saying the petitioners were not harmed by incorrect information from an unclear statute because they sought information from Orr’s office in August when they turned in petitions, instead of June when they began the effort.
When it was over, Jacknow vowed to return with at least 3,000 petition signatures for the Spring 2017 election. The first step, he said, was contacting original signers and asking for their support once again.
“I believe it was unjust for the electoral board to make that decision today,” Jacknow said. He admitted he felt “embarrassment” when asked about his own voter registration address. “I’m wrong for not changing my registration,” he said. “In my naïve mind, which is no excuse, I turned 18 and I got my registration card. If that muddies my credibility, so be it. But I will correct that, of course.”
Jacknow predicted denying the citizens a right to vote on the issue would have political repercussions in future local elections for mayor and village commissioner. The petitioners acquired more than 2,900 signatures and 2,854 ballots were cast in the 2015 mayoral elections, he said.
“I don’t believe video gambling is a betterment for the Forest Park business community.” In the past, Jacknow has asserted video gambling would drive home values down. So far, before legal bills, Jacknow said he and his wife spent $1,250 out-of-pocket. Legal bills were sure to drive the cost over $5,000, he said, which would trigger a requirement for the group to set up a campaign committee and file D-1 forms with the Illinois State Board of Elections. Neighbors had offered checks to help, he said.
“I think everyone involved on both sides is sick of the whole thing.”
Martin Sorice, Sr., owner of multiple local taverns in Forest Park declined to comment after the ruling.
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— Forest Park video gambling ban referendum tossed off the ballot —