While Highwood voters left no doubt after a Nov. 6 binding referendum that the city's ward system of eight trustees should be replaced by for six at-large council members, city officials are largely in favor of waiting until the 2015 general election.
The issue of selecting an at-large council next spring or in 2015 had not been on the agendas of council meetings on Nov. 20 and Nov. 27, but it was raised repeatedly by Third Ward Ald. Kathy Murphy-Pieri, whose four-year term is up next spring.
The actual referendum question, one of two on the ballot in early November, did not specify that the change in form of government should take place in the coming April election. The differing interpretations of election law have created a chasm between Highwood officials.
At the Nov. 27 Committee of the Whole meeting, when members came out of executive session, Murphy-Pieri continued to push for the ward system change in the coming general election.
Murphy-Pieri said Illinois municipal statutes specify that general elections following a binding referendum are exactly what lawmakers had in mind, and cites a September 2005 opinion by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
In that opinion Madigan concludes that "Every statute I have been able to find indicates that a change in government — determined by referendum — must take effect at the next general election."
"It is my opinion that home-rule municipalities may adopt procedures for electing municipal officers by cumulative voting or by instant runoff voting with referendum approval," Madigan wrote.
Suring the Nov. 27 meeting, from which Mayor Charlie Pecaro and Third Ward Ald. Louise Linari were absent, the consensus confirmed in a "straw vote" was that the changeover vote should wait until 2015, an interpretation of election law rendered by city attorney James Ferolo in a Nov. 13 memo to council members.
Ferolo and some council members cite support for the delay from the Lake County States Attorney's office.
Eric Falberg, presiding officer at the meeting, said afterward that there has not been time since the referendum to allow "a full 90 days to circulate petitions, which is exactly our attorney's opinion. I've had people come up to me and say, 'Thank God the election is not until 2015.' I would love to see the April election go to six aldermen but the question is do I want to spend so time fighting (unresolved legal questions on an election date)."
Murphy-Pieri said the will of the people should be respected.
She said referendum wording, which did not specify an election date, misled voters.
"These people didn't vote for a change to take place nearly three years from now," said Murphy-Pieri.