PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday February 26th, 2015, 3:34pm

Chicago Voters Want Legislative Action On Ballot Referendum Issues

Progress Illinois looks at the results of Chicago's non-binding ballot questions and what might come next for the issues, which involve an elected school board, campaign finance reform, paid sick leave, a ban on petcoke and rules for city employees convicted of domestic violence.

Chicago voters on Tuesday decisively backed three citywide advisory referendum questions involving paid sick leave, campaign finance and rules for city employees convicted of domestic violence.

In 37 wards, an overwhelming number of voters also supported a non-binding ballot question about an elected school board for Chicago. The mayor currently appoints Chicago Board of Education members.

The results of these public policy questions are legislatively non-binding, but supporters hope they will prompt elected officials to take action on the issues.

Grassroots groups and the Chicago Teachers Union collected signatures to place the elected school board referendum on the ballot in 37 out of the city's 50 wards after mayor-friendly aldermen pulled what critics called a "political move" in October to squeeze the question off the citywide ballot for a third time.

The referendum, which asked, "Should the city of Chicago have an elected school board," garnered approval from 89 percent of voters on average in the 37 wards, based on election numbers as of Thursday afternoon.

"The message is clear: Chicago residents want democracy in education," stressed Abbie Illenberger with Grassroots Illinois Action. "We are tired of neighborhood school closures and turnarounds, budget cuts, the proliferation of charter schools at the expense of neighborhood schools, and top-down mayoral control of our school system."

The Chicago Board of Education is the only non-elected school board in Illinois, and the state legislature -- which approved the 1995 law that gave Chicago's mayor full authority over the school district and board appointments -- must ultimately change the rules.

"Voters made clear that the appointed members have not made the grade and going forward a democratic process must be used to keep school board members accountable, like every other district in Illinois," the Campaign for an Elected, Representative School Board said in a statement. "Ninety-seven percent of school boards in the United States are elected. The next move for the Campaign for an Elected, Representative School Board is to bring these vote totals to Springfield and push state legislators to change the law allowing Chicago taxpayers to vote for the people running Chicago's schools."

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel rejects the elected school board idea, saying recently, "I don't think we should put politics back into our schools. That's what got them in trouble in the first place."

In Tuesday's municipal election, Emanuel failed to reach the 50-percent-plus-one threshold he needed to win re-election outright. As a result, Emanuel and top mayoral challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, will go head-to-head in a runoff contest on April 7.

Garcia supports switching to an elected school board in Chicago, a move that Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner reportedly opposes. On his campaign website, Garcia notes that, if elected, one of his "first acts as mayor will be to go to Springfield and ask the legislature to revoke the mayoral control legislation and let Chicago take its place with the rest of Illinois by having an elected board."

If Springfield doesn't take action, Garcia says he will push the effort further. 

"Lacking action in the legislature, I will file a federal voting-rights lawsuit based on the Constitution and civil rights laws," he added.

Paid Sick Time

As far as the citywide referendum items, 82 percent of voters said "yes" to the question of whether private employers in Chicago should offer paid sick leave to their employees "in the event of a personal or family illness, an incident of domestic or sexual violence, or a school or building closure due to a public health emergency."

"We now have unequivocal proof of something that workers have been sharing with us for a long time: there is an urgent need for paid sick days," said Adam Kader with the workers rights' group Arise Chicago. "The referendum result sends a strong signal to our city's elected officials: this is a mandate for a Chicago paid sick days policy."

In March, Alds. Joe Moreno (1st) and Toni Foulkes (15th) introduced an ordinance, backed by the Earned Sick Time Chicago Coalition, that looks to ensure all workers in the city currently without paid sick leave are able to take time off to care for their own illnesses, a sick family member or attend medical appointments. The measure has been pending in the council's workforce development and audit committee.

Forty-two percent of private sector workers in Chicago, or more than 460,000 individuals, have no access to paid sick leave, according to the Earned Sick Time Chicago Coalition.

The proposed Chicago earned sick time ordinance would apply to businesses and employers of all sizes in the city, including those who hire domestic workers, such as house cleaners or nannies. Workers would be able to accrue one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked. Under the proposal, both full-time and part-time workers could earn between 40 hours to 72 hours of paid sick leave annually, depending on the size of their employer.

"We're thrilled to see more data backing up what we already knew--that Chicagoans believe families can't afford to wait any longer for paid sick days," said Melissa Josephs, director of equal opportunity policy at Women Employed. "Lawmakers should swiftly heed this call to give workers much needed relief and make our city a healthier, more business-friendly place."

Garica is in favor of making earned paid sick days a requirement for private employers in Chicago.

The mayor's office did not return questions about Emanuel's position on the earned sick time issue.

"Fair Elections" Referendum

Chicago voters also backed the idea of implementing a campaign finance system meant to increase the impact of small donors.

The question, which saw support from 79 percent of voters, asked: "Should the city of Chicago or the state of Illinois reduce the influence of special interest money in elections by financing campaigns using small contributions from individuals and a limited amount of public money?"

Common Cause Illinois spearheaded the "fair elections" referendum, placed on the ballot via legislation sponsored by Ald. Joe Moore (49th).

"The overwhelming vote in support of the referendum demonstrates that public financing of elections is an idea whose time has come," Moore said in a statement. "I look forward to working with the next mayor and the members of the city council to turn this advisory referendum into a law that will transform how we conduct elections in this city."

Leading up to Tuesday's election, both Emanuel and Garcia expressed support for the "fair elections" ballot question.

"This referendum sends a message that there must be equal opportunity for all candidates to participate in the electoral process, even if they don't have access to financial resources," added David Melton, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "It is now up to all of us to ensure that a small donor matching system is adopted as a first step in reforming our broken campaign finance system."

Similar small donor financing programs, which seek to even the campaign-spending playing field for candidates, have been put in place in New York, Los Angeles and Montgomery County, Maryland.

Treatment For City Employees Convicted of Domestic Violence; Petcoke Ban

The third citywide, voter-backed policy asked whether city employees should attend some form of treatment if convicted of domestic violence. That question received 87 percent of voters' support.

The referendum asked: "Should employees of the city of Chicago, if convicted of a domestic violence offense during employment, be referred to a treatment service and required to attend at least one session as a condition of continued employment?"

Ald. Deborah Graham (29th), a domestic abuse survivor, sponsored the resolution to place the question on the citywide ballot.

"I was very pleased to see that the advisory referendum passed so overwhelmingly, and I am consulting with council now to introduce a measure in the city council," Graham told Progress Illinois in an email. "As a survivor of domestic abuse, the issue is personal for me and I've made it a priority since my first day in office.

"Any measure I introduce will be geared toward providing help for families," she added. "This is about an opportunity to get people the treatment they need to pull families out of the cycle of domestic abuse, and the voters have shown that they support helping the city put a stop to domestic violence."

Graham was forced into a runoff in Tuesday's election, and will go up against top challenger Chris Taliaferro in April.

Southeast Side voters, meanwhile, also approved a non-binding referendum Tuesday asking whether petcoke storage and transporation should be banned in the 10th Ward. The question about banning petcoke, an oil refining byproduct being stockpiled along the banks of the Calumet River on the Southeast Side, appeared only on 10th Ward ballots. Eighty-six percent of 10th Ward voters said "yes" to the referendum question. Read Progress Illinois' coverage of the petcoke issue here.

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