RHA faces election controversy

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-1112802745430.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jeff Havens’, ‘Lewis Jordan, executive director of the Rockford Housing Authority (RHA), instructs the driver of an RHA vehicle to move from Brewington Oaks public housing project to Fairgrounds Park public housing unit. Jordan said the RHA vehicle was being used to transport residents to polling places.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111280306931748.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jeff Havens’, ‘Dale Carter, driver, for the “home board bus” waits to transport residents at Olsen Plaza to polling places. Carter said she transports public housing residents to polling stations each election.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-1112803140801.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jeff Havens’, ‘The Rockford Housing Authority-owned “house board bus” sits ready to serve residents at Olsen Plaza. The vehicle transports voters to polling places.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111280319927306.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jeff Havens’, ‘Two vans wait to transport voters to polling places in front of Brewington Oaks public housing unit. The van on the left is operated by a church. The van on the right is owned by the Rockford Housing Authority.’);

The question of whether government-owned vehicles may be used to transport public housing residents to polling places emerged Tuesday as the final campaign topic in a hotly contested Rockford mayoral race.

During a brief interview at Brewington Oaks public housing unit, Lewis Jordan, executive director of the Rockford Housing Authority (RHA), said his understanding of the law was it was permissible to use RHA vehicles to transport residents to polling places if the effort was nonpartisan. He added that the practice had been in effect for years.

Efforts to reach state and federal attorneys for their opinion on whether such use of government vehicles for elections violates state and/or federal law were not successful by time of publication.

Jordan added he took a vacation day to perform the work for Rockford Mayor Doug Scott’s campaign.

Dale Carter, a driver for the “home board bus,” which serves several public housing units, said she’s been transporting public housing unit residents to polling places for the past two years. She supported Jordan’s assertion that drivers did not try to persuade voters to elect a specific candidate.

Tom Meyer, RHA attorney and campaign manager for Scott, acknowledged reports that he received a correspondence from the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s office concerning posting campaign fliers, but denied the correspondence dealt with the use of government vehicles.

Meyer said the letter sent by First Deputy State’s Attorney Chuck Prorok warned that posting fliers soliciting volunteers to canvass for a candidate in public housing units was not permissible.

A copy of the flier was obtained by The Rock River Times, and it reads: “RESIDENTS IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO HELP WITH ELECTIONS ON TUESDAY, APRIL 5TH BY WALKING AND EARN $50.00 AT THE END OF THE DAY PLEASE COME IN N. MAIN MANOR OFFICE ASAP. [It was signed] THANK YOU, N. MAIN MANOR MGMT. (815) 987-3883.”

The management did not respond to calls for comment on the incident.

On the morning of election day, Independent mayoral candidate Larry Morrissey was a guest on 1330-AM, WNTA’s Ken DeCoster Show.

After sharing the show with Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen for his endorsement of his campaign, Morrissey related that an office in an RHA complex was being used as a campaign office for Doug Scott, and RHA vans were being used for transporting RHA residents to the polls. Morrissey said he had pictures of the van being used for that purpose election morning.

Almost immediately, Jordan called in to the show. He angrily denied that he was working for the Doug Scott campaign on RHA time.

“Lewis Jordan is on vacation,” Jordan repeatedly said. Jordan then said he was told he was being “smeared” on the show, and that’s why he called.

DeCoster and Morrissey replied that Jordan’s name had not even been mentioned in regard to the alleged electioneering using public (RHA) property, which Morrissey said he understood was against the law.

Jordan replied that residents’ councils organized getting RHA residents to the polls, and he sees nothing wrong with using the RHA vehicles to get them there.

He added only members of the residents’ council were driving the RHA vans, implying that RHA employees were not driving the voters.

On air, Jordan said he was a Doug Scott supporter and was working for the mayor.

An irate caller subsequently called in and asked if Jordan was taking a vacation day, was he still on RHA property? She said everyone has heard of this sort of thing going on for years, but no one challenged these instances.

Jordan was later photographed at the RHA’s Brewington Oaks complex speaking to a driver of one of the vans in question and gave a brief interview, as noted.

Other callers to WNTA cited vote counters being covered and very avid Doug Scott supporters outside the polling place. As long as campaign workers stay at least 100 feet from the entrance to the polling place, electioneering is permitted under law.

Other voters called the offices of The Rock River Times to complain that their downtown polling places had been changed. Saying they had been going to their old ones for years, they reported that some had been switched from the Burpee Museum of Natural History to St. Peter’s Cathedral, and others had been switched from the Luther Center to Zion Lutheran Church.

“That’s miles for some people,” said one caller. “I think it was done on purpose to inconvenience Morrissey’s downtown voter base. It’s hard to get off work, and if you don’t have your voter’s card, you don’t know where to go. You may be out of luck.”

“There were ward line changes because of the census,” said Executive Director of the Rockford Board of Elections Nancy Strain. “The aldermen did that, and we changed after the November elections. It was definitely not done on purpose [to inconvenience anyone]. The ward lines changes changed precinct lines, and that changed the polling places. We mailed voter ID cards in February, and hopefully they were notified.

“I haven’t had too many complaints today in the office. The main question from callers is, Where do I vote? Strain said. She said a file on election complaints was available to the public.”

In another incident, Matthew Provenzano, a Morrissey supporter and worker, alleged he was at the Fairgrounds Housing Complex, and approached an RHA van with someone who held a camera.

“I asked her some questions in regard to the fliers, and she said, ‘you know I work for RHA,’ and she swung her sweatshirt at me. I’ve got that on video,” said Provenzano.

Morrissey represented a little girl who was tragically burned by hot oil from a stove without an anti-tipping bracket in the RHA-managed Concord Commons, and the $2.3 million settlement last year was cited by Crains Business Weekly as the biggest settlement in Illinois for the year.

From the April 6-12, 2005, issue

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