Based on the Cook County Clerk’s unofficial results of the April 6 election, Oak Park voters seem to overwhelmingly oppose the idea of defunding the village’s police department. Almost 69 percent of voters cast “no” votes in response to the ballot’s advisory referendum question, “Shall the Village of Oak Park defund its Police Department?” 

The controversial referendum narrowly landed a spot on the ballot during a Jan. 19 village board meeting by a 4-3 vote. Trustee Dan Moroney proposed the referendum, drawing criticism from a handful of his fellow trustees who viewed the move as a political stunt. Moroney was at that time a candidate for village president. He withdrew his candidacy nine days later. 

Now about to leave office, Moroney told Wednesday Journal the referendum’s result conveys that the majority of residents stand behind their police department.

“I think it sends a strong message to our police department that the overwhelming percentage of residents support the work that they do in this community,” said Moroney.

Moroney expected that about 70 percent of voters who chose to vote on the referendum would vote against defunding the police.

The question whether the village Oak Park should defund its police received 31.79 percent “yes” votes and 68.24 percent “no” votes; 10.8 percent of voters declined to answer the question. As absentee ballots get counted, those numbers will likely change. 

So, what do the results mean? Nothing compulsory from a legal standpoint. The referendum was non-binding, meaning the village board has no obligation to adhere to its results. However, incoming village president Vicki Scaman told Wednesday Journal she does not intend to defund police.

“I do not have that goal,” Scaman said. Scaman is currently the village clerk.

Her primary goal, she said, is building trust and transparency, working to have services that benefit everybody.

“That may be a tall order,” said Scaman. “But the best way to get there is to really listen to community concerns.”

Scaman does not believe that the referendum question was an accurate assessment, because it provided no further information.

“I don’t think a simple question of, ‘Shall we defund the police? Yes or no,’ is enough information to know what the motivation was behind why people voted the way they did,” said Scaman. 

As village president, Scaman plans to have the village board engage in conversations with the public, as well as continue to review social service agency contracts and the measures that the police department has taken to prevent and eradicate systemic racism.

Like Moroney, Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla found the result of the referendum favorable – but for very different reasons. 

“Within one year of defunding becoming a national conversation, that 30 percent of Oak Parkers see the reason for it gives me a lot of hope,” said Walker-Peddakotla, who is roughly halfway through her four-year term. 

During their shared time on the board, Moroney and Walker-Peddakotla have often butted heads over police reform, particularly defunding. Walker-Peddakotla has been widely critical of Moroney’s referendum question, believing he used it to garner support for his nascent village presidential campaign. 

“The referendum was irresponsible,” she told Wednesday Journal. “It was racist, and it was a white supremacist referendum to try and fearmonger a certain result to an election.”

Walker-Peddakotla said she was nonetheless “proud” of the percent of voters who voted in favor of defunding the police, despite the “Vote No to Defunding the Police” campaign led by the anonymous group “Citizens Against Defunding the Police.” The group, which is unregistered with the Illinois Board of Elections, used a website, video and mailers to encourage people to cast no votes.     

“That referendum plus the vote no to defund effort was completely coordinated,” she said. “I believe that even though people are denying it.”

Moroney has denied having had any involvement with the campaign and does not believe it influenced voters.

“I don’t think it swayed anybody,” Moroney said. 

He believes the referendum result indicates that voters do not want “slogan-based policymaking” and thinks it will be a morale boost for Oak Park police officers, whom he said had been subjected to a “heavy amount of unfair criticism” for policing incidents in other areas of the United States.

“I don’t think the police have felt appreciated for the past year because of the defund the police advocacy has been persistent in the form of hundreds of emails that have called for a reduction of our force by 30 percent,” said Moroney.  

He also noted the defunding resolution brought to the board by Walker-Peddakotla last August, which failed in a 5-2 vote.  

Moroney views the referendum as a litmus test that gauged the public’s desire to defund police in Oak Park.

“The voters got an opportunity to state their opinion on what the advocates are advocating for,” he said. “We got our answer.”

Walker-Peddakotla does not plan to suspend her advocacy based on a non-binding referendum result. Nor does she believe it will stop other advocates from pursuing the defunding of police departments.

“The struggle for civil rights, the struggle for freedom, the struggle for liberation was never popular,” she said. “We have to continue moving forward.”

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