By Ben Joravsky

The rest of the world may be watching the vote-counting madness in Florida, but on the near-northwest side a lot of folks are still trying to figure out what happened on election day in the 33rd Ward. Actually, in just five key precincts near the intersection of Kimball and Addison. “The stakes are not nearly as high as in Florida, but some of the issues are the same,” says Cheryl Bardoe, who lives in the area. “I know I learned some lessons on election day about how the system does and doesn’t work.”

The issue has to do with about ten and a half acres of undeveloped land just south of Addison between Kimball and the Kennedy Expressway. It’s prime property–the largest slab of undeveloped land on the near-northwest side, an area that’s crawling with developers eager to make a buck by building pricey town houses or condos.

Many residents had hoped the site could remain undeveloped, perhaps as a park or nature center. But the city apparently thought the land was far too valuable to keep all of it off the tax rolls. A few years ago Home Depot talked about building there, but residents and the ward’s alderman, Richard Mell, scared it off, arguing that the store would only add more traffic to an area that’s already near gridlock during rush hour.

About two years ago Mell came up with the idea of building a mix of homes, light industry, and a school on the site. The school would be a new building for Inter-American Magnet, a highly regarded public grade school now located in Lakeview. That part of the plan seemed to have the most support. Inter-American’s parents and staff were eager to move, as they’d long ago outgrown their building at 919 W. Barry. And many local parents wanted them to come, if only because their children would have a greater chance of being accepted now that neighborhood kids get preferential treatment in the annual magnet-school lottery. “There are no magnet schools in our area,” says Marissa Hopkins, a resident of the 33rd Ward whose son attends Inter-American. “But there are several magnet schools on the north side. So residents there have a better chance of getting into one. It’s only fair that it comes here.”

But Mayor Daley didn’t want Inter-American–or any school, for that matter–to move to the ward. At least that’s what Mell says Daley says. As Mell has repeatedly told the story, he’s pleaded with Daley at least six times over the last year or so on behalf of Inter-American, to no avail. (Mell was recently hospitalized for open-heart surgery and was unavailable for comment for this story.)

“Mell’s been insistent about this,” says Michael Graff, a member of Irving Park Neighbors Association, the most prominent community organization in the area. “We’ve had meetings where he’s said, ‘I’ve been giving Daley a hard time about this, and he pooh-poohs it.’ Once he said, ‘I was at a wedding last night, and the mayor was there–and I didn’t talk to him because I’m so irritated at him about this.'” Hopkins says, “Mell’s been great on this issue. He’s handled this personally.”

The residents who backed the school organized meetings, wrote letters, and called influential friends in high places, hoping some angel with clout might whisper the right words into Daley’s ear. Some say they even compromised their beliefs by holding their tongue about some of the School Board’s daffier schemes, including its excessive reliance on standardized testing, so as not to offend Daley or his minions. Nothing worked. According to statements Mell made in the local paper, the mayor remained adamant in his opposition.

Why Daley would be against a school on that site–if he is–has never been clear. Local residents say they’ve never spoken directly to Daley. “All we know is what Daley told Mell or what Mell says that Daley told Mell,” says Graff. At one point Mell told residents that Daley told him he thought the land should remain industrial to help keep well-paid manufacturing jobs in the city. Another time Mell said Daley told him he thought the amount of traffic made it too dangerous to have a school nearby.

Curiously, there’s no record of Daley saying anything publicly on the matter. Planning Department officials refer all questions on the matter to Daley’s press office. Spokesman Rod Sierra says, “It may not be the best site for Inter-American to be on a former industrial site, but nothing has been ruled out. There have been a number of meetings about this, and the bottom line is that they don’t know what they’re going to do with that site. The mayor hasn’t issued any edict on whether the area should stay industrial. It’s still under discussion.”

Over the summer some residents decided to send the mayor a loud and clear message via the ballot. Going door-to-door in the five precincts closest to the site, they collected several hundred signatures on petitions asking that a nonbinding referendum be placed on the ballot. It reads, “Shall the zoning of the vacant 10.5 acre site on the southwest corner of Addison and Kimball be changed to allow for non-industrial and non-commercial use, which could then be used for any of the following: a public library, public school, senior citizen center, nature center or residential housing?”

Mell was supportive. “We had this big meeting at the end of October,” Graff recalls. “Mell had all his precinct captains there, and he was telling all of his guys, ‘Let’s get out that vote!’ He said he wanted a good showing because he wanted to say, ‘Look at how many votes I can produce in my ward. I can carry my ward. ‘Cause I want to run my son-in-law [Congressman Rod] Blagojevich for governor.’ I’m thinking, ‘I don’t believe this–this is why he’s doing our referendum?’ But you know what? It really doesn’t matter why Mell supports it so long as he does support it. As long as Mell and his organization are behind us you’ve got to figure we’re going to do pretty well.”

So it was with cautious confidence that they marched to the polls on election day. But then, says Graff, “One of my neighbors, Dawn Brown, got a call from her mother, who had been at the polling place. She said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but you’re not on the ballot.’ Dawn called us, and she was very excited. And she doesn’t get excited–she’s usually pretty cool. I’m thinking, ‘What do you mean we’re not on the ballot? How can we not be on the ballot? What the hell happened to our referendum?'”

The referendum supporters called Mell’s ward office, the Board of Election Commissioners, their state senator. No one knew what had happened to the referendum. Worse, no one really knew what to do. “It’s not something they have training for,” says Graff. “I wound up talking to some guy at the Board of Election. He said, ‘I don’t know why it’s not on the ballot. We’ll do an investigation. It may take a few days to find out.’ Well, what about right now?”

Mell finally had his staff make photocopies of the referendum question and distribute them to the five polling places. The election judges then passed these pieces of paper to voters, who were supposed to read them and then write in whether they supported the zoning change or not.

But even that solution was confusing. “The big question is where do you write it in?” says Bardoe. “I mean, I wasn’t sure where to write it in, and I was a poll watcher. Someone eventually told me that there is a place at the bottom of the ballot for write-ins. But most voters don’t know that. The whole thing’s bewildering. They hand you your ballot, then they hand you this separate piece of paper. I tried to tell voters at my polling place what to do, but you have to be very careful about what you say because there are rules against electioneering.”

The result was confusion. Some voters wrote in on the sides of their ballots, others on the bottom. Some just wrote yes or no on the pieces of paper the election judges were distributing. “In the end it was madness,” says Bardoe, “and I can truly understand why voters were so confused in Florida. I learned the hard way that if there’s a problem on election day, there are no easy remedies. There’s probably going to be chaos. Our system is not set up to handle these things in a coherent manner. Election judges don’t have the authority. They have to call downtown to get information, and downtown is getting calls from a gazillion different places with a gazillion different questions.”

By 9 AM someone at the Board of Election had found the correct ballot books, and within two hours they were all distributed to the appropriate polling places. The rest of the people who voted that day could properly cast their ballots.

Ultimately the screwup might not matter, since the outcome wasn’t close–over 90 percent of voters voted yes. But Bardoe insists it does matter, if we subscribe to the ideal that in our democratic system every vote counts. “I was there when they tallied the votes,” she says. “At my polling place there were about 60 write-in votes that counted, no matter where they wrote it in. But there were 16 or 17 of those question-sheet votes that we didn’t know what to do with. I called up the Board of Election and wound up talking to some lawyer, who told me to give the phone to the election judge. He told the election judge just to throw out those papers.”

So the judge did. “That’s 16 or 17 votes that didn’t get counted,” says Bardoe. “I feel bad about that. My husband is extremely upset. And you want to know why? Because to get something on the ballot you have to do a lot of work, you have to go door-to-door and talk to people and convince them to sign your petition. We knocked on those doors, and we talked to our neighbors. This was something they really cared about, because it affects our community. The referendum is our chance to be heard, and what do they do? They send the wrong ballot books. It’s very distressing.”

“There was a screwup in the warehouse,” says Tom Leach, spokesman for the Board of Election. “It’s rare that this happens, but when you deal with so many ballots mistakes can happen.”

What will be built at Kimball and Addison is still anyone’s guess. The best bet is housing, probably a bunch of town houses and condos. If that’s the case, it really won’t matter whether or not the referendum was on the ballot.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.