Each year the Citizen Advocacy Center (CAC) gives out Citizen Initiative Awards to recognize local community activists who are catalysts for democratic participation and have used civic, legal, and community organizing tools to advocate for a self-identified issue of public concern.
"The individuals and groups honored by CAC are dynamic in that they have identified a local issue of public concern and have taken action to organize community initiatives, advocate for greater accountability of public bodies, and make a difference in the communities in which they live. Often times these individuals are criticized by government officials as ‘troublemakers’, ‘agitators’, ‘uninformed’, and more. CAC identifies these individuals as inspirational because they embody what it means to live in a participatory democracy, and their dedication to addressing a community issue is strong, even in the face of adversity." Maryam Judar, CAC Executive Director.
Recognition by CAC is not in any way an endorsement of any individual who is or may become a candidate for public office.
2018 Award Recipients:
1. Citizens in Action Serving All Blue Island, Blue Island, for holding elected officials accountable and protecting continued public input in government decision-making.
Citizens in Action Serving All Blue Island formed in 2004 to address police reform in the community. Since then, the organization has acted as a public accountability watchdog, megaphone for community issues, and voter registration engine. At recent meetings, the City of Blue Island curtailed public comment, eventually proposing a draconian public comment policy to silence watchdogs like the members of CASA Blue Island. The proposed ordinance would violate the Open Meetings Act, as well as state and federal protections for freedom of speech. Members of CASA Blue Island and a CAC community lawyer spoke out against the policy at a city council meeting. For now, the policy is on hold as citizens propose fair and lawful standards for public comment.
2. Sid Kincaid, Rockford, for ensuring accountability in student government and being a model watchdog.
In 2015, the Northern Illinois University Student Association Senate voted behind closed doors to impeach an officer, with the Speaker and Sergeant at Arms of the Senate earlier claiming the Open Meetings Act does not apply to the student government. After consulting with CAC, Sid decided to sue the Senate for violation of the Open Meetings Act. After two years, Sid won a settlement, including acknowledgement that the Senate is a public body for purposes of the Open Meetings Act. Sid has dedicated countless hours to holding state universities accountable, transparent, and accessible for students and other members of the public. As a former intern and volunteer for the Citizen Advocacy Center, he studied university disciplinary procedures and due process rights for students. He won a FOIA lawsuit against the Chicago State University Student Government Association. He consistently engages in community conversations and events to discuss Illinois laws and his experiences and helps our community members become better advocates and watchdogs.
3. Let Forest Park Vote on Video Gaming, Forest Park, for using direct democracy to effect change despite high barriers.
In 2013, Forest Park voters overwhelmingly opposed video gaming in a non-binding referendum. Despite that vote, the Village Board passed an ordinance implementing video gaming in 2016. Illinois law allows citizens to place a binding referendum on the ballot asking voters to prohibit video gaming in a municipality or county, but it has a nearly impossible petition threshold requiring the signatures of 25% of all voters in the jurisdiction. Activists managed to collect nearly 3,000 signatures, but lost a challenge in front of a local electoral board consisting of members of the Forest Park Village Council. When the group next attempted to put the question to referendum, they were bumped from the ballot by non-binding questions circulated by pro-gambling interests. Let Forest Park Vote then took the issue to court to ensure the question would reach the ballot. The state trial court sided with Forest Park, but was overturned by the appellate court. The Illinois Supreme Court rejected the pro-gambling request to review the case, and the question was finally put to ballot on November 6, 2018. Fifty-one percent of Forest Park voters chose to prohibit video gaming in the municipality in a historic vote.
4. Shelly LeGere, The Annie LeGere Foundation, Elmhurst, for making Illinois a safer place.
In 2015, the Elmhurst community lost Annie, a bright, vibrant teenager, to an anaphylactic reaction from an undiagnosed food allergy. Police officers arriving on scene were not allowed under state law to carry or administer epinephrine auto-injectors that may have helped Annie. Annie’s family founded the Annie LeGere Foundation to help ensure this never happens again. Annie’s mother, Shelly, approached her state senator about amending Illinois law to allow police officers to carry and administer epinephrine auto-injectors. One year later, after Shelly testified before the General Assembly, Governor Rauner signed the Annie LeGere Law, officially amending the State Police Act and the Illinois Police Training Act. Unfortunately, the law left doctors potentially liable if they prescribed epinephrine for use by police officers. Shelly asked the state to amend the Annie LeGere Law to shield doctors from liability for these prescriptions. In July of 2018, Governor Rauner signed the new bill in a ceremony at Elmhurst City Hall. Elmhurst officers became some of the first in the state to begin carrying EpiPens in August 2018.
2017 Award Recipients:
1. Nicole Virgil and Family, Elmhurst, for community organizing, advocacy on sustainability, and pursuing accountability and transparency in government decision-making. The Virgil family built a temporary “hoop house” over their home garden to extend the growing season. The City of Elmhurst ordered the hoop house removed after receiving a complaint, even though the city explicitly allowed the hoop house the previous winter. The Virgil Family contacted CAC, which educated them on community organizing and government decision-making. A simple garden issue evolved into a community-wide issue on food sustainability, and government accountability and transparency. The Virgils organized dozens of neighbors and local activists to attend City Council and committee meetings; used social media and garnered local and regional press coverage; and lobbied public officials to advance policy change. The Virgils are also pursuing justice before a state court, questioning the applicability of the city’s ordinance and the appropriateness of various actions related to decision-making.
2. Jimmy Lynch, Lombard, for using the First Amendment to organize a youth march to support students impacted by DACA policy changes. Mr. Jimmy Lynch is a politically engaged senior at Glenbard East High School. Mr. Lynch organized a march to support students affected by the federal government abandoning its policy on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The students consulted CAC about local ordinances for marches and assemblies, whether they needed to seek a permit from the municipality, and associated First Amendment issues. A CAC community lawyer served as a legal observer at the march. Nearly 50 students participated in a peaceful, student-led march near Glenbard East, which garnered local media attention.
3. Mike Murray, Bloomingdale Township, for using the power of binding referendum to help those with mental health issues. Mr. Mike Murray believes in providing mental health services to those in need and that township government can play a crucial role in delivering services. Mr. Murray spoke with CAC about how to place a binding citizen-initiated referendum on the ballot to establish a "708" Mental Health Board in Bloomingdale Township. CAC helped Mr. Murray navigate ballot-access laws and application of the Community Mental Health Act. Mr. Murray drafted a petition, organized a team of volunteers to collect more than 1500 signatures and submitted the petition. Once the question was placed on the ballot, Mr. Murray educated voters throughout the township in support of the referendum. Voters narrowly approved the measure. As a result of Mr. Murray’s efforts, Bloomingdale Township formed a mental health board that will plan and coordinate mental health care services for township residents.
4. Families for Fremont, Elmhurst, for sustained civic engagement and advocacy. Residents of East Fremont Avenue oppose the more than 25,000 square foot expansion of a nursing home onto two residential lots on the street, next to and across from single-family homes. Families for Fremont contacted CAC for assistance in understanding the relevant zoning codes, navigating the zoning process, and effectively advocating for their neighborhood before elected and appointed city officials. The neighbors convinced both the Zoning and Planning Commission and the Development, Planning, and Zoning Committee that the expansion did not meet Elmhurst’s municipal code standards. However, the Committee sent the case back for another hearing after the nursing home threatened to sue Elmhurst. The residents redoubled their efforts for the latest hearing, over one year after the process began, and await another decision from the Zoning and Planning Commission
2016 Award Recipients:
1. Ixchel, Cicero and Berwyn
Ixchel is a community group founded by Cicero and Berwyn women of color who are community residents, graduates of local schools, or have children enrolled in Cicero District 99. Ixchel is being recognized for the positive impact it has made in Cicero District 99 with respect to advocating for equitable education.
Co-founder Ms. Delia Barajas has been a passionate civic participant in Cicero since 2009. Ms. Barajas and other community members formed Ixchel after monitoring the public elementary school district and seeing a need to help advance equitable education, including adequate and legally sufficient bilingual education. Ixchel has doggedly pursued education plans and test results, and seeks school district accountability with laws. Through working with CAC, Ixchel has learned how federal, state, and local laws apply to school district programs for English language learners, and its members became more knowledgeable to better advocate for children’s needs in Cicero and Berwyn. Ixchel also addresses systemic racism as a root cause of inequities for communities of color and organized around environmental justice issues to improve the quality of life for students and their families. One measure of their success was in the Fall of 2015 when they successfully organized Cicero community residents to demand that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency hold a Public Meeting on the Proposed Revision of a Construction Permit for Metropolitan Biosolids Management. As a result, they were able to lower 47% of sulfur dioxide emissions in their community.
2. Karen Jump, Northbrook
Ms. Jump is being recognized for her undeterred advocacy efforts to maintain protected open space within unincorporated Cook County from development. In a grueling process over a two year period that includes ongoing litigation, Ms. Jump has: founded the nonprofit, Mission Hills Openlands, to further community organizing efforts to preserve open land; sought to keep herself informed about the project through use of the Freedom of Information Act; speaks out regularly and questions compliance with environmental and zoning laws at dozens of public meetings through her First Amendment rights; and keeps others informed. The primary issue is to what degree the open space is protected by restrictive covenants.
A contentious community issue, seven homeowners associations filed a lawsuit against Cook County and the developer, and Ms. Jump regularly informs community members of the latest update through online postings and regularly sending e-newsletters to subscribers that provide actual public documents pertaining to the article. Additionally, Ms. Jump has reached out to local, state, and federal regulatory agencies and officials to help the residents advocate for their viewpoint. For example, Ms. Jump successfully lobbied her representatives in the Illinois General Assembly to write and urge the developer to voluntarily enter the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Site Remediation Program. Ms. Jump is recognized for the impact a determined citizen can have to raise public awareness about contentious community issues and holding government entities accountable.
3. Jean Kaczmarek, Glen Ellyn
Ms. Kaczmarek is being recognized for her tireless efforts since 2005 to advocate for good government ethics within the DuPage County Board, the DuPage County Forest Preserve, and the DuPage County Election Commission, including the pursuit of increased transparency, accountability, and efficiency.
Ms. Kaczmarek has utilized the Freedom of Information Act, the Open Meetings Act, ethics laws, procurement laws, election laws, and others to comprehensively monitor DuPage County government bodies. Issues that Ms. Kaczmarek has raised over the years include the destruction of public records policy at the DuPage County Election Commission, and the County Board posting inadequate public notice of raises for DuPage County elected officials’ salaries at a meeting to be held after a long holiday. Ms. Kaczmarek’s advocacy that adequate notice was not provided to the public because of the holiday was instrumental in the County Board postponing the vote on their own raises. Additional issues Ms. Kaczmarek has spoken out on includes: conflicts of interest by local electoral board members; over-inflated elected government official salaries; and poor lobbying transparency laws. Ms. Kaczmarek is a vocal proponent for consolidating the DuPage County Election Commission and County Clerk’s offices to increase efficiency within DuPage County Government and has long criticized the appointment process of DuPage County Election Commissions for lacking sufficient transparency. She has also questioned the proportionality between the duties of DuPage County Election Commissioners and their annual salaries.
Most recently, Ms. Kaczmarek successfully advocated for an amendment to the DuPage County Election Commission’s Ethics policy to include a prohibition for attorneys working for the election commission from making campaign contributions to candidates for elected offices within the election commission's jurisdiction.
4. Don Mitchell, Westchester
Mr. Mitchell is being recognized for his initiative and resolve as a watchdog in Westchester, where he has used the Freedom of Information Act, Open Meetings Act, and his First Amendment rights to hold village trustees accountable.
A retired nurse, Mr. Mitchell took an interest in local government when he learned the village board had placed a referendum for home rule on the ballot. He contacted CAC to learn about home rule and his rights to participate in local government matters, outside of the quintessential civic act of voting. Mr. Mitchell was at first intimidated to be politically active, concerned that the village’s solicitation ordinance would prevent him from talking with community members. CAC worked with him and the village to ensure understanding of his First Amendment rights to canvass his neighborhood and organize neighbors to learn more about home rule without fear of reprisal from the government.
Residents in the community defeated the home rule referendum. Mr. Mitchell has continued to monitor the village government and be a source of information for neighbors, especially when the village placed a referendum on the next election’s ballot asking the residents to raise the limiting tax rate to increase revenue. Mr. Mitchell has further questioned what is appropriate election activity for an elected official when a referendum is on the ballot.
2015 Award Recipients:
1. Paulina Jimenez, Villa Park Ms. Jimenez is being recognized for her outstanding watchdog and community organizing efforts in Villa Park. Ms. Jimenez first became civically engaged when she became concerned about a marijuana dispensary proposed in Villa Park. With CAC’ assistance, Ms. Jimenez tackled wading through multiple zoning applications, learned how to read the village’s Zoning Code, acquainted herself with the nuts and bolts of the zoning relief application process, learned how to use public databases, gave public comment, petitioned her elected officials with questions and concerns, and advocated her stance on the application. Ms. Jimenez flagged inconsistencies between the proposed application and the village’s zoning code on issues such as proximity of the proposed business to a daycare facility and property ownership. After a long process, the Villa Park narrowly voted down the application, with the deciding vote being cast by the President. Ms. Jimenez’s advocacy made the difference. Ms. Jimenez is also involved in creating an Art Center in Villa Park. Ms. Jimenez was part of a group who identified a need for an Arts Center in downtown Villa Park. She and other activists started a nonprofit entity to promote the arts in Villa Park. In the process of lobbying their local government to convert a former Post Office to the Arts Center, the group has used the Illinois and Federal Freedom of Information Acts to obtain documents to try to pursue the Arts Center. Despite the many obstacles before Ms. Jimenez and her group, Ms. Jimenez has been persistent and continues to work tirelessly to help bring art and culture to Villa Park and surrounding communities. 2. Ben Avery, Oak Park Mr. Avery is being recognized for his outstanding efforts to implement policy changes affecting government contractors at the state level. Specifically, Mr. Avery has promoted equality for disadvantaged businesses in the construction and professional service sectors of Illinois through changes in policy. Mr. Avery identified a problem with the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) payment system of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). Mr. Avery found that second-tier subcontractors were not being paid through state contracts, and there was no process for second-tier subcontractors to seek recovery. He contacted CAC for assistance in drafting the legislation needed to institute change. Mr. Avery successfully lobbied a state representative to sponsor a subcontractor equality bill so that subcontractors would be included and receive payments directly. A bill based on Mr. Avery’s policy change was introduced in the spring 2015 General Assembly Legislative Session. Mr. Avery conducted outreach to persuade others, including minority, women’s and general contractor groups, community organizations, and other officials, to speak out to IDOT on the effects of discrimination on opportunities for DBEs and the efforts to establish a level playing field for DBE participants. 3. Paul DeMichele, Bensenville Paul DeMichele is being recognized for his long-term civic engagement and continued efforts in monitoring many local government entities throughout DuPage County. During his early years of being civically engaged, Mr. DeMichele collected 6,600 signatures in two weeks to place a question for referendum on the ballot to save a junior high school that was on the chopping block. The community showed overwhelming support to save the school, and the school still stands this day. Mr. DeMichele has been a trustee with the Elmhurst District 205 School Board, with Addison Township, and with Bensenville Fire Protection District, as well as a monitor of activities within the DuPage County Board, DuPage County Forest Preserve, and Bensenville Village Hall. Mr. DeMichele has also been actively engaged in organizing Red Ribbon Breakfasts in Elmhurst to promote the need for drug free community, a director within the Elmhurst Chamber of Commerce, and a director of the nonprofit Life Education Center that focuses on substance abuse prevention training for K-8 students. One of Mr. DeMichele’s passions is financial accountability of the entities he monitors. Mr. DeMichele has extensively used the Freedom of Information Act to determine how public dollars are spent and has questioned public expenditures when he has identified issues of concern. Mr. DeMichele also rallies other citizens to various causes through using community organizing tools and reaches out to individuals to invite them to be more civically engaged. Over these years, CAC has been a constant source of support for Mr. DeMichele’s civic activities. 4. Gaby Hernández Chico, Glendale Heights Ms. Chico is being recognized for her continued dedication to organizing parents to advocate for children’s education. Ms. Chico contacted CAC about her involvement with the Marquardt School District’s Parent Advisory Board. The Parent Advisory Board (PAB) is an entity created to represent the interests of minority parents in the district with respect to transitional bilingual education, and Ms. Chico was appointed due to being an active parent volunteer. Ms. Chico questioned the process around the application for waiver/modification relating to transitional bilingual education, if children were receiving the bilingual education they were entitled to, and the limited scope of the PAB to participate in district decisions from the onset. An outspoken advocate, Ms. Chico raised issues of the inability of PAB members to place items on the agenda and her concern that PAB members were appointed primarily to support district decisions. Ms. Chico also attended meetings for the application for waiver/modification related to transitional bilingual education, spoke out about concerns related to the limited public participation in meetings and at a public hearing, and also questioned how the public was informed of their rights to participate. Many parents she talked with who were also concerned about bilingual education were not aware they had a right to speak at meetings or how to get involved. To educate parents about their rights and how to get involved Ms. Chico took the initiative and, in conjunction with Immigrant Solidarity DuPage, organized a forum at the library to inform parents about their children’s educational right to bilingual education. CAC assisted Ms. Chico by speaking about the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and the protections provided by the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Additionally, CAC assisted Ms. Chico with Illinois FOIA requests.
2014 Award Recipients:
1. Batavia Rate Payers for Fair Electricity, Batavia (Kane County)
Batavia Rate Payers for Fair Electricity (BRPFE) is being recognized for their outstanding efforts to hold the City of Batavia accountable for fiscal concerns related to a Power Sales Agreement with the Northern Illinois Municipal Power Agency for electricity from the Prairie State Energy Campus (PSEC). Residents' questions went unanswered as to what exact information was provided to the city that lead them to believe the Agreement would protect rate payers from volatile energy prices but instead resulted in soaring construction costs, increased debt, and unstable electric wholesale costs. Utilizing FOIA, BRPFE spent countless hours reviewing copious documents that generated many questions including those about the consultant's role in the decision-making process, a last minute change in deadline for final commitment to the project, and the impact of coal quality on the investment. BRPFE organized residents, collected over 1,000 petition signatures, and presented the petition to Batavia City Council calling for an investigation into the city’s power provider and demanding increased transparency around contractual terms. The City of Batavia responded by officially requesting the Attorney General (Consumer Protection Division) to investigate the contract to verify terms and disclosure fair to consumers.
2. Joan Metz, Indian Head Park (Cook County)
Ms. Metz is being recognized for her outstanding efforts in monitoring the Village of Indian Head Park and thereby bringing greater accountability to Village Board actions. Ms. Metz attends Village Board meetings and wrote a blog that comprehensively reviewed public comments made at the Village Board, the details of which were often omitted from Village Board’s meeting minutes. When the Village Board failed to televise meetings, Ms. Metz videotaped meetings and posted them to her blog and YouTube Channel. At first, the Village Board attempted to implement barriers to Ms. Metz tapings but then the Village began televising meetings itself. Ms. Metz also monitored the Village’s finances and questioned expenditures, such as a policy allowing the Village President to receive a salary for acting as the Liquor Commissioner and a supplemental healthcare policy that allowed for expense reimbursements in excess of $60,000. After Ms. Metz questioned the reasoning and fiscal impact of the benefits and salary, the Board voted to eliminate both after the next election. Ms. Metz’s continues to commendably monitor her local government.
3. Park Truth, Plainfield (Will County)
Park Truth is being recognized for their outstanding efforts in organizing community members to monitor Plainfield Township Park District by attending public meetings and questioning the stringing of contracts, hiring and contracting nepotism, expenditures that should have required Board approval, and qualifications of the newly hired Executive Director. They also addressed attempts to deter and squash public participation that included board members unabashedly playing tic-tac-toe during public comment, passing a public comment policy that limited First Amendment rights, and the removal of residents by police escort. Park Truth members also utilized FOIA to obtain information. When they disputed the Park District’s response, they turned to the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor’s (PAC) , for which the Park District website described the citizens as “a small group of radicals” who use the PAC review process to “possibly harass the Plainfield Park District Board for its decisions.” Park Truth used the information gathered and published and shared the information with the community so that they were made aware of the actions of the Board. During the time Park Truth engaged in their undeterred advocacy, the Executive Director resigned, offensive comments about the citizens were removed, the Board began investigating expenditures, and more. Park Truth’s continued advocacy and outreach also led to limited but groundbreaking legislation passed by the Illinois State Legislature that increased the Board size by two members to reduce the opportunity for a smaller majority to poorly dictate public policy.
4. Gerri Songer, Hawthorn Woods (Lake County) Ms. Songer is being recognized for her tenacity in standing up to her Village Board about her right to seek documents and give public comment. She began attending Village meetings after seeing an increased presence of trains at all hours of the day and questioned what they were carrying. Through public records, she learned the trains were transporting toxic, hazardous, and explosive substances and her research showed that several of trains have met with accident and created hazardous runoff. Ms. Songer tried to address her public safety concerns to her Village Board. During her polite if forceful public comment, the Board had police removed Ms. Songer from the meeting. Ms. Songer was undeterred from attending subsequent meetings, asserting her rights, and continuing to speak out. Ms. Songer is also an educator and her experiences in civic participation have inspired her to teach high school students how to become participants in their democracy. Ms. Songer started the extracurricular “Students4Democracy” at Elk Grove High School, where she teaches. She has integrated into the curriculum how to utilize public participation tools like FOIA and the right to speak at open meetings of public bodies. Many of these students are first generation Americans and have not previously been exposed to democracy participation.
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