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 OakPark.com, 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?”