After vaccine vote, Oak Park officials question ease of adding ballot measures

Is it too easy to get a cause on the ballot?

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By Marty Stempniak

Staff Reporter

All it takes is signatures from 15 of your friends and a quick vote at a sparsely attending meeting, and you can get an advisory referendum placed on a local election ballot. Such was the case with a referendum in last week's election, which asked for more transparency in the delivery of vaccines in Oak Park.

Voters supported the ballot measure by a better than 2-to-1 margin, totaling nearly 12,000 yes votes. But local elected officials aren't asking how they can address the concerns raised by the referendum, rather how they can make it harder to get a referendum on the ballot next time around.

Oak Park politicians plan to approach state representatives and senators soon to look at "toughening up" those rules.

"We're not against advisory referendums, but it's just too easy to get on the ballot," said F. David Boulanger, the chief elected official for Oak Park Township. By state law, referendum efforts are approved through a process overseen by township governments.

On the other side, Oak Parker Tom Broderick thinks that the process doesn't need fixing. Two years ago, he helped lead a group of activists that got a referendum on the ballot, urging the village to pay its employees a living wage.

"Since they're nonbinding, why make it tougher?" Broderick said. "I understand if you're forced into it that you might want to make it tougher, but if they're nonbinding, what's the goal?"

    Last week's referendum asked the Village of Oak Park to require those who administer vaccines to disclose all ingredients for the shots, and to advise patients that the medicines may contain an unsafe amount of mercury. According to the Cook County clerk's office, the referendum captured 67 percent of the vote (11,938 votes to 5,785).

    Barbara Mullarkey, 75, a lifelong Oak Parker and longtime advocate for vaccination transparency, worked to get the measure on the ballot. It takes just 15 John Hancocks from registered voters to place a measure on the ballot, in a process governed by state law and implemented through the township government. Final approval to place a referendum on a ballot comes not from the township's governing board, but by a vote of ordinary citizens who come to the annual town meeting in April.

    Mullarkey, who is also president of the Illinois Vaccine Awareness Coalition, said the day after the election that she was overjoyed by the results.

    "I'm delighted that people have stood up for transparency and full disclosure of vaccine ingredients," she said. "It's a victory for freedom of information."

    She scoffed at Web comments on Wednesday Journal's, accusing the referendum of "fear mongering." Mullarkey hoped that the village would act quickly to address the voter response, after the referendum suggesting that Oak Park adopt a living wage languished for two years before it was struck down by the village board in July.

    But Margaret Provost-Fyfe, director of the Oak Park Health Department, said no village action is forthcoming. She spoke out against the referendum, arguing that detailed information about vaccines is already provided on the Food and Drug Administration's website, vaccines are safe, and it would be a burden and send the wrong message if health care providers were forced to provide that information to all patients, regardless of their interest.

    Provost-Fyfe said it is "unfortunate" that the measure ever made it on the ballot. The only action village hall is taking is to tell health care providers that the referendum is nonbinding, and to keep administering vaccines in the same fashion as previously. She said the referendum has no "sound scientific basis" and hopes it won't scare people away from getting vaccinated.

    "There is no concern in the medical community at this time around any of the issues raised in this referendum," she said, later adding, "The village will not be taking any action whatsoever in this regard."

    It used to be even easier to get advisory referenda on the ballot, according to the township's Boulanger. Up until a few years ago, someone could just show up at the annual township meeting and ask any registered voters there for approval of a referendum.

    Now, you must give the township clerk notice by March 1, and circulate a petition. Boulanger suggested that the signature total be boosted to 500 to add a little more tooth to the requirements. Village President David Pope suggested increasing the number of votes that the state requires at the township meeting.

    "You can have a situation where you walk into the township annual meeting, you're the only person there, and you vote to put your own referendum on the ballot," Pope said.

    Years ago, barely anyone even came to those meetings, according to Boulanger, but local referenda, addressing everything from the war in Iraq to development, have become more frequent in recent years.

    Broderick disagrees with any talk that voters were uninformed when they approved both the vaccine and the living wage referenda.

    "Voters aren't stupid, I'm sorry," he said. "They may not know the nuts and bolts of the thing, but you get a sense. And since it's nonbinding, what's wrong with that?"

    Reader Comments

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    Daniel Hurtado  

    Posted: November 20th, 2010 9:17 AM

    But, Stephanie, the referendum did not merely ask for opinions. It made a debatable and controversial assertion as though it were established fact -- namely, that current vaccines contain toxic levels of mercury. Voters were entitled to assume the statement of fact had been vetted and was uncontroversial, and that the issue was merely the level of disclosure that should be required. But that was not the case.

    Stephanie Thomas  

    Posted: November 20th, 2010 9:06 AM

    Thanks to Barbara Mullarkey for all of her hard work re: vaccines! You are appreciated!! Why shouldn't it be easy to get a referendum on the ballot? We're just asking for people's opinion about a subject & what better way to do it? Now we know what a majority of voters think about this issue. There is nothing wrong with providing more information about vaccines to people! It amazes me that people continue to close their eyes & minds where vaccines are concerned, especially re: children.

    tom broderick from oak park  

    Posted: November 11th, 2010 5:26 PM

    The success of getting the living wage ordinance on the ballot followed standard procedure. In 2008, voters in Oak Park said "YES" to the referendum. Forty-five of Forty-nine O.P. Precincts voted "YES." The Village Board asked the Community Relations Commission to research and report on the issue. The CRC endorsed it by a 7 to 2 vote. As Dan Finnegan noted, the business community of Oak Park fought the ordinance even though very few of them would have been affected. This is the norm, nationally.

    Dan Finnegan  

    Posted: November 11th, 2010 3:04 PM

    I remember the Living Wage referendum battle. Along with the CRC, every business organization in Oak Park spent time on the referendum. Most probably hundreds of man hours were consumed considering the matter and emotions ran high. However, the comments to date recall the matter as if it were a collegial debate. At the time, those opposed were ignoring the obvious mandate of the voters. The papers contained letters comparing the Living Wage ordinance to a camel getting its nose into the tent, along with a swift rebuttal comparing the camel to a worker and the tent as the realm of the employer. After the board dropped the ordinance, there were more letters condemning the board and vowing to make its decision an issue in the next election. I am sorry, but a petition with only 15 signatures should not be able to cause so much drama nor involve so many people over a protracted length of time.

    john murtagh from Oak Park  

    Posted: November 10th, 2010 7:24 PM

    There actually are some good results to the referenda. After the Living Wage referenta, the board sent the subject to the Community Relations Commission. Thirteen months worth of free research resulted and the board got lots of information that enabled them to make an informed choice. Similarly, the vaccination referndum resulted in a community dialog on a subject that few of us knew anything about. Creating forums for discussion is reason enough to allow referneda.

    Stephen Popolizio from Oak Park  

    Posted: November 10th, 2010 5:41 PM

    The referendum as well-intentioned as it may have sounded was frivolous. Why bother with referenda if they are non-binding? Such "straw votes" are out of place in a general election.

    john murtagh from Oak Park  

    Posted: November 10th, 2010 2:18 PM

    I agree with Tom Broderick as well. I can think of no subject that should be banned from refernda. My problem, is lack info from the village, political networks, and the press to provide pros and cons, etc. on referenda initiatives. A good job is done on informing us about candidates but nothing on referenda. We don't need to change state laws or Oak Park Village or Township ordinances. We need communications. Perhaps the WJ Blog will help surface issues pre-ballot.

    Build the Springfield Monorail!!!!  

    Posted: November 10th, 2010 1:22 PM

    Why do I get the feeling that if there was a non-binding referendum wanting the Village to pass a law requiring Oak Parkers to maintain a hand gun in their homes for personal safety purposes and the "sense of voter response" was to approve such an ordinance, the reactions of those interviewed in the article might differ just a tad bit.....

    Tom Scharre  

    Posted: November 10th, 2010 12:44 PM

    I must be feeling agreeable, because I also agree with Mr. Broderick. But based on the passionate responses this issue has received (including posts to an earlier article), the problem seems to be that many people cannot distinguish between binding and nonbinding votes. So they somehow infer the rule of law is being flouted by Village government.

    tom broderick from oak park  

    Posted: November 10th, 2010 12:05 PM

    In the article, I mention that the referendum process is non binding and that one gets a sense of voter response to a question/issue posed by a member of the community. Why make that more difficult? If we want to move to a binding referendum approach, then, the gateway to getting on a ballot should be more constraining.

    Tom Scharre  

    Posted: November 10th, 2010 10:58 AM

    I agree with Civics 101. There is a very fine line between unfettered, immediate democracy and mob rule. And if that is what people want, God forbid, there is an orderly, established way to enact it legislatively. Think of our system as the equivalent of counting to ten when you are angry. It is a time-tested way to let cooler heads prevail.

    Civics 101  

    Posted: November 10th, 2010 10:42 AM

    We have a republican/representive democratic form of government. If Kyle, Broderick or Mullarkey want a direct democracy where voters decide all matters by referendum, maybe they should pool their resources and seek a binding referendum.


    Posted: November 10th, 2010 8:33 AM

    There should be MORE democracy in the world, not less. Nice job, Oak Park, of trying to silence voters and make it tougher to have a voice in the community. If anything, work should be done to make voter choices binding rather than subject to the whims of Village Hall.

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