District 113A Board Member Removed from April Ballot Following Objection Hearing
The Lemont-Bromberek Combined School District 113A Electoral Board ruled unanimously Tuesday to uphold two challenges claiming the petition filed by Hughes lacked proper binding, which is required under Illinois law.
Janet Hughes, a current board member in Lemont-Bromberek Combined School District 113A, was removed from the April election ballot Tuesday night after election officials upheld two objections claiming her nomination petition was submitted without proper binding.
The District 113A Electoral Board unanimously agreed to rule in favor of Lemont resident Jennifer Albrecht and Village Trustee Paul Chialdikas, who filed objections Dec. 27 after reviewing all 11 District 113A candidate petitions. The ruling was based on the claim that the nomination petition submitted by Hughes was in violation of Illinois Election Code 10-4, which states that petition sheets must be "neatly fastened together in book form and fastened together at one edge in a secure and suitable manner."
Though Hughes claimed her petition was bound with a large paper clip when she turned it in Dec. 20, Chialdikas and Albrecht both testified that the papers were unbound a week later. District 113A administrative assistant Sandra Larek, the acting election officer who received Hughes's petition, claimed the papers were filed loosely, without any paper clip, binder or other fastening device.
As a result of the electoral board ruling in favor of the objectors, Hughes's name was removed from the election ballot. The decision was met with mixed reaction from the more than two dozen members of the audience, while a visibly upset Hughes expressed her disappointment.
"I think the residents of District 113A should decide who they want on our board, not two objectors and the electoral board," Hughes said, reiterating a statement she made prior to the hearing.
Chialdikas and Albrecht both said they were happy the law was upheld, even if the violation was over something as simple as a paper clip.
"We as elected officials have to adhere to the law, and in this case the law was upheld," Chialdikas said. "If you can't follow a rule as simple as binding your nominating papers, I have to wonder what other rules you wouldn't follow."
Question of Bias Due to Pending Litigation, Past Complaints
Before Chialdikas and Albrecht were given the opportunity to present their cases, Hughes's attorney, Kory Atkinson, made a motion to excuse District 113A Board President Lisa Wright and Board Member John Wood from the electoral board.
Per state statute, a school district's electoral board is composed of the board's president, secretary and the member with the longest continuous term of service. Board Secretary Andreas Taylor was ineligible to serve due to his candidacy in the April election, as was senior-most Board Member Sue Murphy. Wood was next in line as the member with the second-most years of service, while attorney Nicholas Kefalos was appointed as the board's third member by a Cook County judge.
Citing the recent lawsuit filed on Hughes's behalf against Wood and Wright, as well as several other district administrators and board members, Atkinson claimed the electoral board had an inherent bias against Hughes. In the complaint, Hughes alleges that the defendants knowingly participated in illegal fund transfers, financial mismangement and concealment that cost Lemont taxpayers $12 million.
"My client is entitled to have this objection heard by neutral, unbiased finders of fact," he said.
James Petrungaro, an attorney for District 113A who moderated the hearing, noted the objection but denied the request after Wood and Wright stated they had yet to be served with a lawsuit and thus had no bias against Hughes.
Atkinson also questioned the motives of Larek, who Chialdikas called as a witness when he presented his case. Though she admitted she has filed complaints against Hughes because of her behavior in district offices, Larek said she had no bias or hard feelings toward Hughes and maintained that she received the documents without a paper clip.
Paper Clip, or No Paper Clip?
Though many audience members were visibly amused when Atkinson moved to enter a large paper clip into evidence, the outcome of the hearing ultimately rested on the inability of Hughes to prove a paper clip was actually used.
During her testimony, Hughes claimed she submitted the petition with a large paper clip because she found it to be "the most functional" way to fasten the documents. She said Larek removed the paper clip before she went through the petition and never put it back.
"I didn't think anything of it (at the time)," Hughes said. "I didn't think it would be a problem."
District 113A school board candidate Michael Aurelio, who filed his petition immediately after Hughes, was called by Atkinson as a witness in the case. Aurelio said initially that he believed the papers were fastened when she handed them to Larek, but said in cross-examination by Kefalos that he could not state for a fact that a paper clip existed.
Upon inspection of Hughes's nominating petition, which was entered into evidence by Chialdikas, all three electoral board members stated on record that they were unable to see any marks or impressions from the paper clip. After considering the credibility of Larek, Hughes and Aurelio, as well as the arguments presented by Chialdikas and Albrecht, they agreed there was no evidence Hughes submitted properly bound paperwork.
Hughes Undecided on Possible Appeal
After the hearing, Atkinson said he and Hughes had yet to discuss the possibility of an appeal, though he did ask for the home addresses of the electoral board members.
"That determination will have to be made, but I believe we have a valid case," he said. "We feel that the burden of proof was on the objectors, and they did not address that in the hearing tonight."
According to the Illinois State Board of Elections, Hughes has five days to file a petition for judicial review with the Cook County Clerk. A hearing would be held within 30 days of the request.
Under the Illinois Election Code, Hughes may also enter the race as a write-in candidate. The law states that "whenever an objection to a candidate's nominating papers or petitions for any office is sustained after the 61st day before the election, the candidate may file a notarized declaration of intent to be a write-in candidate for that office with the proper election authority or authorities no later than 7 days prior to the election."
During the hearing, Atkinson referenced Bendell vs. the Electoral Board for District 148, a 2003 case in which the appellate court questioned whether a large paper clip was a suitable method for securing nomination petitions. Though the District 113A Electoral Board found the case to be irrelevant to their decision, since the question was whether a paper clip actually existed, Chialdikas pointed out the dissenting opinion after the hearing, which defends the merit of debating something as small as a paper clip.
"The opinion says: 'Fastening securely is not a trivial or nitpicking requirement. It obviously is intended to prevent fraud or tampering, thus preserving the integrity of the papers,'" Chialdikas said. "It might seem small, but the decision made here tonight ensures that all board candidates are qualified to run."
Editor's Note: During the hearing, Hughes testified that Old Quarry Middle School Principal Bill Caron, reporter Matt Piechalak of the Lemont Reporter-Met and Lemont Patch Editor Amanda Luevano were present when she submitted her nominating petition. For more on this, read the latest post in our Editor's Corner column.