By Stuart R. Wahlin
Two new members, Lynne Strathman (R-1) and Carolyn Gardner (D-9), took their seats at the Dec. 10 Winnebago County Board meeting.
Welcoming the two new board members, Doug Aurand (D-3) joked, “They’re sure a lot better looking than the two guys they replaced.”
Strathman, who was sworn in during the meeting, will serve the remaining term of Randy Olson (R), who stepped down to accept a chief helicopter pilot position on the county’s payroll.
Gardner, who prevailed after a year-long legal battle to wrestle the District 9 seat away from Ted Biondo (R), took her oath just prior to the meeting.
In September, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld last year’s ruling by 17th Circuit Judge Ronald Pirrello (D), who determined Gardner’s attorneys were correct in that a special election should have been held for the two remaining years of the late Mary Ann Aiello’s (R-9) term.
Biondo was appointed to the seat after Aiello’s death, but did not file for the special election prescribed by state statute. For this reason, Gardner would run for the seat unopposed.
On the eve of the November 2008 elections, however, Pirrello’s decision was overturned on appeal, and no special election was held.
Because the decision left no time for reprinting, Gardner’s name still appeared on some county ballots, however. The votes she received were later certified, and Pirrello ordered that Gardner immediately replace Biondo on the board.
The county’s top Republican elected official, County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen, indicated, “I was hopeful there’d be a special election, frankly, so that all the voters in that district would be able to weigh in, but that was not my call, so it is what it is, and we’ll move on.
“It is unfortunate that the entire district didn’t get a chance to weigh in. All the Rockford voters never had a chance,” Christiansen noted. “It was a Republican seat. Mary Ann Aiello chose to be a Republican. She had it for four years. Reverse it, it’d have been a Democratic seat, and we wouldn’t have said a word. It should be represented by those that have it. The electorate then has the power to change that. Unfortunately, that got bypassed in this process.”
Because it was determined the seat held by Biondo rightfully belonged to Gardner, Pirrello also awarded her pay of $7,500 for the year. Biondo, however, was not required to return his compensation.
George Anne Duckett (D-12) and other Democrats welcomed Gardner to the board after her long legal battle.
“I want to thank Ms. Gardner for not giving up, and to let our justice system decide her case,” Duckett said, encouraging Gardner to work in a nonpartisan matter for the people of Winnebago County.
Gardner, who until now had been inaccessible to the press, told a swarm of reporters: “I want to work for the public and my community. I’m one of those old-fashioned, door-to-door persons. I like to walk and meet people, and see what your needs are.”
Gardner pledged to ensure that her constituents are educated about the issues facing the board.
Asked whether she considered a year’s back pay for work not performed to be fair, Gardner responded: “I don’t want to say what’s fair and what’s not fair. I think that if a judge brings a decision on your behalf…then I think we need to uphold what the judge’s decision is.”
Gardner’s attorneys, John Nelson and Winnebago County Democratic Chairman Dan Lewandowski, asserted in court that the pay was appropriate, because Gardner had wrongfully been denied an opportunity to serve as the District 9 representative.
Asked for a response to a local columnist’s political advice that she should give the money back to the county, Gardner told The Rock River Times: “I’m not a person that responds to every little thing that someone makes a statement about. I think that the money is something that the judge made a decision on. I’m thankful for his decision. I’m very happy about it, and thank you for your time.”
Biondo will try to reclaim the seat from Gardner in the November 2010 general election.
From the Dec. 16-22, 2009 issue