Thursday, May 2, 2013

The District 135 Political fiasco and the new regional political dynamics of Orland Park

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The District 135 Political fiasco and the new regional political dynamics of Orland Park

I don't spend much time writing about the Orland District 135 Schools, but I have to say, "What a freaking political mess that place is.

The district has had public image problems for years. High taxes even though the district has a huge stash of cash that some say is as high as $50 million. For what? To keep for a retirement account? In today's economy, rather than raising property taxes to pay for the schools -- which admittedly are among the best, the board should have dipped into the savings to pay for more improvements.

The problem with being a great school system is that the bar is raised very high and the public expects more. Always more.

Educators make great school teachers sometimes, but lousy politicians, as was evidenced by the recent political move by three outgoing board members to leave the district with what amounted to "flipping the bird" at the public.

The District 135 school board elections on April 9 were a mess. Very few of the local reporters who covered it seemed to grasp the real meaning behind what happened and slapped together stories that seemed a bit confused. The sole exception was the Orland Park Prairie which always writes their stories straight.

But here's what happened in a nutshell. 

District 135 has seven members. They are:

- John Carmody, President
- Ann M. Gentile, Vice President
- Tina Zekick, secretary
- Mary Bragg, member
- Tom Cunningham, member
- Lynne Donegan, member
- Joseph S. LaMargo, member

LaMargo, Zekich and Carmody were elected/re-elected to the board in 2011. There were tensions back then.

The four seats up for re-election when Orland District 135 voters went to the polls to vote on April 9th were Gentile, Bragg, Cunningham and Donegan. But Donegan, who tried and failed to win support for the position of vice president in 2011, decided not to run for re-election.

Gentile, Bragg and Cunningham did seek re-election but lost by a huge margin. Voters had lost confidence in the board, concerned about public bickering and questions about all that money sitting in the bank. But the deciding factor was the shift in politics in Orland Park, which I'll discuss in detail later. The fact is that the two political powerhouses in Orland, Village Mayor Dan McLaughlin, the Democratic Committeeman, and popular Cook County Commissioner Liz Gorman, the Republican Committeeman, had set aside longstanding political dividing lines to come together for the benefit of residents.

They backed a new slate of candidates for the District 135 seats, Sandra J. Kulak, Laura S. Berry, Michael A. Maratea, and Michael F. Carroll.

Nathan Jaisingh also ran on the ballot, probably as the incumbent slate's replacement for Donegan.

But Kulak, Berry, Maratea and Carrol won by a landslide margin, ousting the three incumbents. When you look at the vote (based on slates) the challengers won 75 percent of the votes and the incumbents barely won 25 percent of the votes. Voters selected four names from the ballot choices of 8 total names.

Clearly, voters were not happy with the performance of the incumbents. The vote results were decisive.

Registered Voters: 39,074Vote For 4
Ballots Cast: 5,299Total Votes: 18,039
Download SpreadsheetView Results by TownshipView Certificates
Turnout: 13.56%
Precincts Reporting Status Bar
Sandra J. Kulak (NonPartisan)
Laura S. Berry (NonPartisan)
Michael R. Maratea (NonPartisan)
Ann M. Gentile (NonPartisan)
Nathan R. Jaisingh (NonPartisan)
Michael F. Carroll (NonPartisan)
Mary A. Bragg (NonPartisan)
Tom Cunningham (NonPartisan)

Carmody, the board president, was now in a precarious position. But two weeks after the election, Carmody, who was elected in 2007 and was made president in 2011, made a surprise announcement on April 25, saying he was resigning from the board effective immediately because he no longer lived in the district.

That was a little surprising. When did he move out? Usually when people move, it takes months, especially in this economy where housing sales are in a slump. That he no longer lived in the district would have been a huge issue, even with his resignation, raising questions about when he left, why he left and when did he decide to announce it? 

It was even more stranger because Carmody had made an announcement last year that he planned to run for the office of Village Mayor -- since his term had not expired on District 135, he could run for village office. Had he won, he would have resigned from the school board. Had he lost, he still would have had his school district seat. You have to raise an eyebrow at the issue of residency, had he ran and won the village seat. That was a strange one for sure.

But that quagmire was quickly overshadowed the next day, Friday April 26, when the disgruntled outgoing lame duck trustees, Gentile and Cunningham, and one remaining trustee, Zekich, called for a special board meeting to be held on Wednesday night to select Carmody's replacement.

It is always outrageous and purely for political reasons when a lame duck board -- an old board that is between an election and the inauguration of new members, tries to pull a fast one and make a major decision before being dissolved and replaced by the new member majority which is to take power next week.

The rumor is that the old board majority wanted to name a successor to Carmody to deny the new board members the right to appoint someone; the rumored potential candidates to replace Carmody were the wife of Orland Park Village Trustee Jim Dodge, Linda Dodge, and perennial candidate and attorney John Fotopoulos who ran again and lost his candidacy for the village board on April 9. The inside track reportedly was for Fotopoulos. 

(I emailed Fotopoulos but have not received a response yet. When I get one, I'll publish his comments about the rumors that the outgoing board was going to name him. Some political pundits said he orchestrated the move.)

Donegan and LaMargo, two of the remaining incumbents, refused to attend the special meeting standing by the principle that the voters spoke loudly and the new board should be the body that selects Carmody's replacement.

All they needed was four of the board's seven members to constitute a quorum to convene the special board meeting and ram through their choice to fill Carmody's vacated seat with either Dodge or most likely Fotopoulos.

But at the last minute, and very wisely, Mary Bragg decided not to attend the meeting. Instead of having four members present Wednesday, the Gentile, Cunningham and Zekich plot fizzled.

Cunningham angrily denounced the board members who did not attend the lame duck, special meeting, calling them "spineless." 

Actually, they were the ones with the spines.

Joe LaMargo issued a statement that read: "Appointing someone to fill a vacant board seat with no interview process, no community input and no opportunity to invite interested candidates to come forward is careless, appears to be based purely on the political concerns of the outgoing board members and ignores the interests of the voters of the school district."

Keep an eye on LaMargo. He has a great future in public service.

If Fotopoulos organized this fiasco, this could further undermine his future election ambitions. You can run and lose many times and still do well -- just ask Abraham Lincoln. But you can't run and lose and then, in a backdoor, lame duck move, try to get appointed to a public seat by the outgoing, unpopular trustees and against the wishes of the voters.

Voters have long memories. They don't forget. In fairness to Fotopoulos, maybe he had nothing to do with it, but knowing politics I doubt the outgoing board would have floated his name without speaking with him first. Hopefully we'll hear from Fotopoulos to explain it all. Maybe it was Dodge doing the pushing? But being a seasoned politician, even Dodge would not have pushed his wife without knowing up front that he would have the backing of both McLaughlin and Gorman. 

(Just because names are floated, doesn't mean they were aware of it. Maybe Fotopoulos knew nothing about his name being considered?)

And voters will remember Bragg in a much better light than she was in on election night when she barely won 6 percent of the votes cast. Already, the powers in Orland Park are looking to find a new place in public office for her. Maybe on the Orland Fire Protection District Commission to fill the vacancy of John Brudnak, a Fire Commissioner who was elected as a Fire Trustee. Brudnak gets sworn in next week, Tuesday. 

Or, maybe, Bragg gets another chance at the school district and gets appointed to Carmody's vacated seat? 

-- Ray Hanania

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