Mayoral Candidate Removed from Ballot Went on a Very Public Facebook Meltdown

Sean P. Hightower
Sean P. Hightower on his phone at Wednesday’s meeting of the Village of Park Forest Municipal Officers Electoral Board . (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- A mayoral candidate was removed from the ballot Wednesday (pending final paperwork from the Village of Park Forest Municipal Officers Electoral Board) had a public Facebook meltdown after the hearing. The candidate, Sean P. Hightower, engaged in a number of back-and-forths and tit-for-tats with practically everyone and anyone who commented on this post in a public Park Forest Facebook group.

Sean P. Hightower lashed out at this writer: “Thanks to eNews and the wonderful Gary Kopycinski for making a mockery of a fair, independent election. Don’t worry though! My 900 supporters still know how to spell my name. The battle isn’t over yet!”

eNews Park Forest reviewed all nomination packets and I wrote about those that appeared to have problems. Published the first article on December 21, 2018. Discovered at the Electoral Board hearing on January 2 that one of those I wrote about, Emma J. Cox, filed papers on December 26, 2018, to withdraw her candidacy. She had neglected to file her Statement of Economic Interest with the Cook County Clerk. Perhaps she realized her error and that’s why she chose to withdraw from the election.

At any rate, Mr. Hightower chose to attack me simply discovering the errors I found with his nominating papers: that he neglected to put his address at the top of his nominating petitions. In the space that says “ADDRESS–ZIP CODE” he wrote only “60466.”

That’s history now. And it is also history that the Electoral Board voted to find his nominating papers “deficient.”

Mr. Hightower’s mother also went on an extended public lament in the comments under the same Facebook post, charged first that the language in the paperwork her son and every other candidate was required to fill out was “ambiguous.” She also said she found it “so strange that the board of electors are office holders in the village… which gives high standards of biased challenges… it’s really strange… none of the candidates were challenged on illegal signatures …[Editor’s Note: One candidate was challenged on signatures, and that case is still pending] like most challenges in other villages towns and cities… most of the time the people who are candidates challenge each other so they can have a stronger chance of winning. Park forest has people who just come in and challenge people that are not in the race???? Seems like all they had to do would just not vote for the person….. but I think the challengers were coerced by other candidates… not being able to stand up for themselves…. We need people to represent us that can make real change to a dying community. They must have more innovative ideas and move to find business that are prosperous in the twenty first century… not those that worked in yesteryear. I’m afraid that decay is caused by the unwillingness to find the brightest minds and ideas to make it happen [sic]”

To her point on the composition of the Municipal Officers Electoral Board, that is set by state statute [10 ILCS 5/10-9]. The appropriate section of the statute reads:

3. The municipal officers electoral board to hear and pass upon objections to the nominations of candidates for officers of municipalities shall be composed of the mayor or president of the board of trustees of the city, village or incorporated town, and the city, village or incorporated town clerk, and one member of the city council or board of trustees, that member being designated who is eligible to serve on the electoral board and has served the greatest number of years as a member of the city council or board of trustees, of whom the mayor or president of the board of trustees shall be the chair.

Simplified, that means the Municipal Officers Electoral Board is composed of the Mayor or president (chairman), the municipal clerk and the councilman, alderman or trustee who has served the greatest number of years as a member of the council or board, as we said in this piece. This year, the members of the Electoral Board are Mayor John A. Ostenburg, Chairman; Village Clerk Sheila McGann; and Second Senior Trustee Robert McCray. Senior Trustee Mae Brandon is running for office in the April 2, 2019, Consolidate Election and so will not serve on the Electoral Board. The Attorney for the Electoral Board is Ross D. Secler of Odelson & Sterk, the firm that represents the Village of Park Forest.

Finally, Mr. Hightower’s mother lamented that “Park forest [sic] has people who just come in and challenge people that are not in the race????”

Here’s the thing: almost anyone can challenge anyone for any reason. The reason does not have to be legitimate. If it’s not legitimate, it will get tossed. Here’s the state statute (emphasis added):

Any legal voter of the political subdivision or district in which the candidate or public question is to be voted on, or any legal voter in the State in the case of a proposed amendment to Article IV of the Constitution or an advisory public question to be submitted to the voters of the entire State, having objections to any certificate of nomination or nomination papers or petitions filed, shall file an objector’s petition together with 2 copies thereof in the principal office or the permanent branch office of the State Board of Elections, or in the office of the election authority or local election official with whom the certificate of nomination, nomination papers or petitions are on file.

Look, Mr. Hightower simply made some rookie mistakes, and mistakes that were easily avoided if he had just asked someone for advice. There are plenty of people who have run for office — myself included — who would have helped, looked over his paperwork. But, by his own admission at the Electoral Board hearing, he asked no one for help, said he did it all himself.

It’s really not that hard, but I understand when one is running for office the first or tenth time, anxiety can increase. It always pays to ask advice from as many people as possible. And this advice is usually free. One can consult an attorney, but that is rarely necessary at this level, i.e. filling out the initial paperwork.

It also came across my desk that Mr. Hightower is tossing around the notion that I am part of a conspiracy to remove him from the ballot. That I somehow engineered these objections.

What can I say except that this is simply not the case. I wrote my articles on my own, did my own reviews, and then on came the objectors.

Regarding the objectors, before reading his objection papers, I had never met (to my recollection) or heard of Jonathan H. Newman. Mr. Newman objected to the nomination papers of Emma J. Cox, Sean P. Hightower, and Renee Hawthorne. Was not able to find any contact information for Mr. Newman online and I did not catch him at the hearing — although there certainly were opportunities during the recesses — to ask him for his phone number. That was my mistake, my error.

If Mr. Newman is reading this, I’d like to talk to you. Please email your contact information to me at [email protected]

Christine Dupee
Objector Christine Dupee. Candidate Renee Hawthorne is in the background. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

I did find the other objector, Christine Dupee, on Facebook. (Pr. “Du-pay”, emphasis on the second syllable, I learned at the hearing.) We did speak on the phone prior to the hearing. Met her for the first time, I believe, as we happened to arrive at Wednesday’s hearing at the same time. Again, apologies to Ms. Dupee if we met before.

Ms. Dupee told me she sees the nomination papers as a job application. I agree. Certainly, a poorly filled out job application does not garner much serious attention.

Ms. Dupee went into more detail in the same thread I am citing here regarding her reasons for becoming an objector:

As a person who filed an objection to nominating petitions for mayor, I have these things to say:

1. Nominating papers are not checked by anyone for accuracy except for by the citizenry. That is why after the nomination papers are filed the public is allowed to request copies or view within the office all nomination papers for office. It is up to the citizenry to ensure that the candidates have done their part in properly filing their nominating petitions and gathering the appropriate number of signatures from registered voters. Any registered voter in Park Forest can file a challenge to these nomination papers if they so desire.

2. I look at nomination papers just as I would a job application: These people are applying for a position. At the very least, considering the bureaucratic nature of elected officials and governmental entities, the candidates should be able to fill out all forms properly and submit the proper forms. That is bare minimum. 

3. As someone who challenged the nomination papers of your relative Sean P. Hightower, I assure you that my challenge was NOT coerced by someone else. I was not asked by any candidate to file a challenge to him or anyone else. I chose to challenge because I saw problems with the nomination papers. 

4. When I made the personal decision to challenge nominating papers for mayor, I examined all of the papers for all candidates. I chose to do this because with a new mayor coming in, I want to make sure that the people who have filed have done so properly. Like I said, I see it as a job application. If the person applying cannot fill it out properly that casts doubt on their ability to do the job. To me, address is not “ambiguous”. When someone asks for an address they mean building number and street, city, state, and zip code (my opinion). That was not the only issue I found with his papers, but that’s the only issue that was heard as Mr. Hightower had already stormed out of the room and left the premises by the time my challenge to his papers was called for hearing. 

5. I personally did not challenge any signatures. Most candidates had nearly 300 signatures when I think they needed something like 100-150. I didn’t do the exact math on it. Some of the signatures I did believe were problematic, but the quantity was not enough to where I believed that the signatures would disqualify them from running. The only nominating papers I challenged were those that (in my opinion) did not contain properly filled paperwork or the correct paperwork. It may seem like nitpicking to you, but we need someone in office who is going to know how to maneuver the bureaucracy. That means crossed t’s and dotted i’s – someone who is on it from day one and has the ability to properly file papers and/or seek out the proper resources to assist them.

By examining the papers I was performing my duty as a citizen. By challenging those papers I saw as problematic I was performing my duty as a citizen. That is all I was doing: my duty as a citizen, no more no less.

Mr. Hightower objected to Ms. Dupee’s comments, telling her, “You should have challenged whoever had 300 signatures!!!! That’s a definite NO-NO by state board election code!!”

He’s wrong there. That’s simply not the case. It is true that the information sheet the Village of Park Forest provides to candidates does say, “Independent candidate nominating petitions must contain valid, genuine signatures of registered voters from the Village in the amount of not to be less than 5% nor more than 8% (or 50 more than the minimum, whichever is greater) of the number of persons who voted in the 2017 Consolidated Elections.” However, it is perfectly acceptable to file more signatures than required, far beyond the 8% in fact. The first time I ran for Village Trustee in 2003, I had over 500 signatures. That’s fine. For counting purposes, only the first 8% of the valid signatures are necessary. If some signatures had been successfully challenged, the others would more than have made up for those that were invalid.

Among the candidates with overkill in the number of signatures they gathered is the former Mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley. “Hizzoner” was famous for submitting boxes and boxes and boxes of signatures with his nomination papers. Challenge 500 of them? There were thousands more. And that was legal. And it made a statement.

My free advice — and maybe only worth the cost? I remember Mr. Hightower from many years ago as he attended a wonderful school where I teach. I believe I had Mr. Hightower in the classroom. I’m very pleased when former students return the teachers. I really would like to see Mr. Hightower relax, take some walks, and continue to consider serving Park Forest — but gather some much-needed experience. Perhaps serve on a commission? Village Manager Tom Mick’s only contribution on this Facebook thread was to post a link where people can learn more about Boards and Commissions in Park Forest.

Apply now to join a Board or Commission! That goes for Mr. Hightower or any other citizen who nurtures that honorable, burning desire to do more, to serve in the public arena.

And regarding these meltdowns and harsh words? I’ve had a few myself, online and in person. These pass. People remember who you become, not who you were on that day so many years ago.

I recall having a public dispute with former Village Trustee Harold Brown. Wrote a letter to the editor decrying what I heard of his behavior with another Village Trustee some years ago during an Executive Session. At the dedication of Logan Park, Harold, munching on a hot dog, came up to me, shook my hand, referenced the editorial, and said, “You were right.”

We began to chat after that and eventually became colleagues on the Village Board. Had breakfast with him just after he stepped down from his position on the Village Board and retired to Arizona.

Harold taught me that it’s okay to apologize and it’s okay to accept an apology. Lessons I still need to learn “more better,” as chef Justin Wilson used to say.

Often, a cooling-off period is a good thing first.

In her examination of the nomination papers for candidates, Ms. Dupee found issues that I did not. For example, she discovered that Renee Hawthorne used the wrong nomination petitions. Her petitions include the word “PRIMARY” in the header, and that, again, may be a rookie mistake. I do believe the objection to her nomination papers will be sustained on that ground.

But that’s just me. I’m not an attorney or a judge. I’m a journalist with some past experience running for office and holding elected office. Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I’m not.

Ms. Hawthorne spoke with me after Wednesday’s hearing. She gave a much more measured response than Mr. Hightower later did on Facebook. It was not possible to interview Mr. Hightower after the Electoral Board hearing as he stormed out of the Board Room as the members of the Electoral Board shared how they would vote, after arguments had concluded.

“I think it’s all part of the process,” Ms. Hawthorne told eNews Park Forest. “Nonetheless, I think that I will do what is in the best interest of the citizens of the Village of Park Forest. I look forward to the challenges as well as the objections, and I will do my best to serve the community. My goal is to be the next mayor of the Village of Park Forest and I believe that I am the best candidate. I actually won the lottery for number one as far as the ballot is concerned. And I’m excited about how I’m actually going to campaign. Whether it is written-in or joined-in, I will be in.”

From that, I gathered that Ms. Hawthorne perhaps will continue her candidacy as a write-in candidate if any of the objections to her nominating papers are sustained.

We’ll see what happens at next week’s hearing of the Electoral Board.

And hopefully the next rants will be in private. Not in public on Facebook or Twitter.

We have far too many public Twitter rants coming from the White House. We don’t need any more.