The Oak Lawn Community High School Dist. 229 electoral board unanimously overruled an objection filed by the school board president that his opponent's use of a paper clip to fasten his nominating petitions violated the state election code.
Forty parents and faculty members packed the high school's boardroom Tuesday evening for an electoral board hearing. D229 Board President Stephen Trotto, who opted to run for a two-year-term instead of a contested four-year-term board race, filed an objection against newcomer James Melnik.
Dist. 229 attorney Burt Odelson provided legal counsel to the electoral board chaired by school board secretary David Altenburg, and senior board members Dan Janik and Melissa Slade. The school district electoral board is typically chaired by the board president, but because Trotto was the objector, Altenburg was made substitute chair.
Trotto and Melnik are running in a special election to fill a vacancy left by board vice-president James O'Malley, who resigned two years ago.
Trotto, an insurance attorney, represented himself. Melnik, who makes his living building room additions on houses, told the board that he hadn't had time to find an attorney to represent him when he found a summons stuck in his front door before the New Year holiday.
"I don't know how this process works. I'm not a lawyer. I'm representing myself," Melnik said. "Saturday, Sunday and Monday (the New Year holiday) I tried to talk to a lawyer but it was impossible to get someone here. I do want that put into the record."
Odelson explained that once an objection to a candidate's nominating petitions is filed, the law requires a hearing between three to five days.
"That's why it's such a quick process," Odelson said. "It's a quick process because these things have to be settled to print ballots."
Trotto cited a state election statute that made it mandatory for a candidate to securely bind and number his or her nominating petitions. Failure in doing so will result in petition invalidation.
"That's the basis of my case," Trotto said, citing a case in which a candidate's nominating petitions were ruled invalid because the candidate used a paper clip.
While state statutes don't indicate a specific type of fastener, such as a staple, the 2011 Candidates Guide provided by the Illinois State Board of Elections taken directly from the state election code specifies, "The petition sheets shall be neatly fastened together in book form and fastened together at one edge in a secure and suitable manner."
Trotto then called Dist. 229 Supt. Michael Riordan as a witness, asking Riordan to hold up Melnik's nominating petitions bound by their paper clip.
After verifying that the packet was the one Melnik filed on Dec. 20, Trotto asked Riordan to pull out one of the sheets.
"The election code says it has to be securely bound," Trotto said. "Is it securely bound?"
"That's a question for me? I was able to pull out that paper," Riordan answered to snickers from the audience.
Melnik had no questions for the superintendent. He did state that he filed his candidate's packet—including seven pages of voters' signatures on his petitions, his statement of candidacy, economic disclosure statement and loyalty oath to Riordan's administrative assistant, Linda Schlimm.
"I gave it to a lady named Linda," Melnik said. "She gave me a receipt back stating that the petitions were bound."
Later, under questioning by the electoral board, Riordan said Schlimm went through a verbal checklist with candidates filing their petitions.
"She does not accept anything from a candidate until a verbal exchange takes place," Riordan said. "That's really not her role … to assess that everything is done to the letter of the law."
Both men were allowed to make statements to electoral board. Melnik apologized to board members for wasting everyone's time by using a paper clip, believing it was sufficient.
"I believe you guys as a board should look into this a little deeper than just a paper clip," Melnik said. "I also asked to run for a two-year term. I'm the only person running against Mr. Trotto … I believe the people of (District) 229 deserve another choice in this matter to actually elect or try to elect somebody other than Mr. Trotto. That's all I have to say.
Trotto said that initially he wasn't going to challenge Melnik's petitions.
"I don't even know Mr. Melnik, so it's nothing personal against him," he said. "After thinking about it and belaboring it, I came back to the conclusion that a rule is a rule. Anybody who knows me knows I always stand hard and fast by the rules … and we have to abide by that."
Citing the high school's student disciplinary code and zero tolerance policies, Trotto said, "If we're going to partake in a responsibility such as running for office, we should learn what the rules are and the rules are very apparent. There's case law and a statute that's very plain that (petitions) have to be affixed. If we hold our kids up to follow the rules, we should also follow the rules."
Odelson reviewed the cases presented by Trotto. One of those cases that invalidated a candidate's petitions because they were fastened with a paper clip was later overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court.
"(The Illinois Supreme Court) didn't comment on the paper clip," Odelson said. "The clerk of the village should not have sat on the electoral board (because she was) part of the petition process."
Odelson presented two choices to the electoral board—to sustain or overrule the objection.
"It is petty, it is small, but that's the way the law is," Odelson said.
"I can't sit here and take judgment. I look at the rule, and according to what it says in here, it makes no mention about using a paper clip or staple," Altenburg said.
Referring to Odelson's own papers, Altenburg added, "For me to sit here and make a decision that a paper clip is not a secure fastener when I see you use paper clips on everything you bring in here, I can't make that decision."
Saying that Riordan had to yank on the first sheet of Melnik's petition to make it come loose when questioned by Trotto, Slade said that the paper clip looked secure enough to her.
"In my opinion, you have to look at what is being bound," Slade said. "If that was 70 pages and you pick the packet up and they start falling out because a paper clip can barely encompass what is there, I would say that's not securely bound, but given that there is 10 sheets of paper at the most there and it's clipped by a paper clip … in my opinion it looked securely fastened."
"I don't care if it's paper clips or burned by wax. It's all there," Janik said, motioning to overrule Trotto's objection.
Odelson said that Trotto had five days to file an appeal in the Cook County Circuit Court.
Asked if he would appeal, Trotto said he didn't think so, adding, "But never say never."
Melnik said he was relieved.
"Right now I'm real nervous," he said. "I didn't think it would be this big a deal. I didn't plan on it."