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Appellate court invalidates vote to recall Dolton Mayor Tiffany Henyard

Dolton Mayor Tiffany Henyard scored a victory Friday when an appellate court ruled that June 28 votes to recall her from office were invalid.

The three-judge panel concluded the Dolton Village Board improperly drafted the referendum questions and ordered the Cook County clerk’s office to not certify the results.

“The people of Dolton elected me in a fair and free election, and these efforts to mislead and manipulate them have been an utter and shameless waste of taxpayer dollars and time,” Henyard said Friday in a statement.

Dolton voters elected Henyard to a four-year term as mayor in April 2021.

“I will continue to serve as mayor of Dolton with integrity and a commitment to put the needs of our constituents first,” Henyard said.

By late 2021, a board majority of five village trustees regularly clashed with Henyard over hiring, spending, transparency and accountability. The board voted in December to place the recall questions on the June 28 ballots.

“I’m disappointed in the message it sends about peoples’ votes counting,” Dolton Trustee Jason House said of the ruling. “The residents clearly spoke with their votes.”

On June 28, Dolton voters overwhelmingly approved two measures to remove Henyard from office. The first, a referendum to create a mechanism to recall the mayor, passed with 56.5% of the vote and a margin of 448 votes out of 3,462 cast.

Voters approved the second question on whether to recall Henyard as mayor with 56% of the vote and a margin of 424 votes.

“The people knew exactly what they were voting for,” House said. “What this says about democracy in its totality is that it’s an overwhelming struggle.”

Henyard challenged the constitutionality of the recall questions in a lawsuit filed April 25. Essentially, she argued, the question to recall the mayor could not appear on the same ballot as the question to create the recall mechanism.

The mechanism to recall the mayor was not legal until the county clerk certified results several weeks after the June 28 election, her attorneys argued. The appellate court agreed.

“The trustees were clearly determined to use their authority to remove Henyard from office immediately regardless of the fact that Illinois law does not provide for the recall of village officials and the fact that the village had not previously adopted a recall mechanism by referendum,” the court ruled.

Justices cited state court precedents and the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention in determining that except for governor, no public official in Illinois has been recalled from office.

“History gives us virtually no example of any public official in Illinois ever being recalled midterm by a referendum vote — regardless of whether the recall mechanism was in place before the officer’s term began,” the court ruled.

California and other states explicitly allow citizens to recall officials.

“Illinois most assuredly does not share California’s hospitality for recall elections,” the appellate court wrote.

Attorneys for the trustees argued unsuccessfully that the lack of legal precedents and the fact that Dolton is a home-rule community should mean the Village Board’s recall questions were valid.

The court seemed to agree with the argument made by attorneys for Henyard that putting the cart and the horse on the same ballot rendered both questions invalid. The best guidance provided by state court precedents on the matter is that attempts to change a form of local government must be clearly worded, the appellate justices concluded.

“The verbal gymnastics necessary to draft the two referenda in a way that would allow Henyard to be removed midterm resulted in an enormously convoluted, confusing, and ambiguous question, which clearly violates the clarity and precision requirements that our supreme court set forth in Leck and Lipinski,” other cases that pertained, the court ruled.

Dolton residents and Henyard supporters packed a Chicago courtroom Sept. 13 when the three appellate justices heard oral arguments for an hour in the case.

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Michael Kasper, who formerly was legal counsel for the Democratic Party of Illinois and attorney for former House Speaker Michael Madigan, was Henyard’s lead attorney. She also was represented by Bob Fioretti, a former Chicago alderman who is the Republican nominee challenging Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the Nov. 8 election.

Evergreen Park-based attorney Burt Odelson, an expert in municipal and election law in Illinois, was lead counsel for Dolton trustees.

Both sides provided copies of the 23-page ruling, though it was not posted on the appellate court’s website as of 6 pm Friday.

House said Friday trustees needed to review the ruling with their attorney before deciding whether they would appeal the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court.

In addition to serving as Dolton mayor, Thornton Township trustees picked Henyard in March to serve out the three years remaining on the term of late township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli, who died in January.

Ted Slowik is a columnist at the Daily Southtown.

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