Election Day in Oak Park: Spending referendum is haunted by ghost of past pool fiasco

St. Giles School was the only polling place open in north Oak Park on election day 2020, and unlike during early voting, crowds were sparse. (Photo/Helen Quinn Pasin)

By Helen Quinn Pasin

Medill Reports

On election day Nov. 3, 2020, Oak Parkers had to decide how to vote on the local referendum: “Shall any capital expenditure of $5 million or more by any local taxing body within Oak Park be subject to a binding referendum for approval or rejection by voters?”

This referendum would give voters the power to veto any spending project over $5 million. It was brought to the ballot by citizen Kevin Peppard and then approved by other registered voters. When initiatives are brought to the ballot in the fashion, they are non-binding, despite the use of the word binding in the clause.

Regardless of how Oak Parkers decided to vote on this, many referenced the 2016 referendum to build an Olympic size pool at OPRF High School (D200), which turned into a highly divisive controversy and ultimately failed. One of these voters declined to share how she is voting on the current referendum due to the divisiveness surrounding the pool. The voter, who declined to give her name mentioned that neighbors were still angry knowing how she voted on the pool.

College student Graham Weiglos, 20, voted no on this year’s referendum because it also reminded him of the District 200 pool referendum. “The intricacies of the democratic process got in the way of a well-formulated and much-needed improvement to OPRF. I think if the village had to undergo that process every time it wanted to improve the community, nothing would ever get done,” said Weiglos, who was a student at OPRF during the controversy over the pool. “While our board members may not always make the right decisions, we elected them for a reason and we need to let them do their work.”

Retired Oak Parker Tom MacMillan, 61, thinks the referendum is important for the people of Oak Park to have a say in the village’s spending because despite the 2016 pool referendum failing, there are still efforts in Oak Park to build the pool. “District 200 is ignoring a referendum vote entirely with their project to build the pool. It is like the people in charge could care less about the actual citizens,” said MacMillan.

Although some who referenced the pool voted yes and some voted no on the current referendum, it’s clear that Oak Parkers are still troubled by the 2016 pool referendum and view it as a failure.

Voters who did not mention the District 200 pool referendum also seemed to be split between a yes or no vote on the current referendum. Wendy Owen, 52, a local mom, said, “I voted yes in an effort to provide accountability over elected officials and voter consensus over major capital projects.”

Robert Francis, 51, a local businessman, voted no. “We elect representatives to make the call. That why this is a republic,” Francis said. “If we don’t like their calls we elect other representatives.”

Helen Quinn Pasin is an investigative reporter focused on social justice at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @HelenQuinnPasin.