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updated: 7/19/2012 5:25 AM

Winfield voters demand voice on police, video gambling

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  • Winfield residents Steve Romanelli, left, and Harold Besch congratulate each other after submitting petitions calling for a referendum in November on video gambling and keeping the local police department intact.

       Winfield residents Steve Romanelli, left, and Harold Besch congratulate each other after submitting petitions calling for a referendum in November on video gambling and keeping the local police department intact.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Winfield resident Steve Romanelli gives a petition Wednesday to Village Clerk Anne Mareachen at village hall calling for two questions to be put on the November ballot.

       Winfield resident Steve Romanelli gives a petition Wednesday to Village Clerk Anne Mareachen at village hall calling for two questions to be put on the November ballot.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • A third of Winfield's roughly 6,600 registered voters signed two petitions to place separate video gambling and police department questions on the November ballot.

       A third of Winfield's roughly 6,600 registered voters signed two petitions to place separate video gambling and police department questions on the November ballot.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 

Talk about community activism.

Concerned about losing their police department while legalizing video gambling, a third of Winfield's roughly 6,600 registered voters signed petitions requiring village officials to let residents vote on the two topics this fall.

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The petitions, submitted Wednesday to the village clerk, require village leaders to put separate questions on the November ballot on video gambling and outsourcing for police services. The only way to keep the questions off the ballot in the town of almost 10,000 people is for someone to successfully challenge the validity of signatures.

Resident Jed Skillman said the petition drive aimed for far more signatures than the minimum required to force a referendum.

"We wanted to put the matter completely out of reach of a challenge by them or members of the 'gaming industry,'" he said in an email.

The video gambling ballot question, which is possible because of a petition signed by 2,261 voters, would force Winfield to reinstate a ban the village board repealed in March.

With limited options for new revenue, trustees who supported lifting the ban argued that the village can't afford to pass up the opportunity to make an estimated $45,000 annually from video gambling machines at restaurants and bars.

Counties and towns that allow such gambling will receive 5 percent of each machine's profit. The state will receive 25 percent, while establishment owners and terminal operators split the rest.

But resident Harold Besch said most of the people who attended the village board meetings on the topic urged that the ban be kept in place.

"For them (trustees) to go ahead and reverse it was the wrong thing to do," Besch said.

While the video gambling angered some residents, it was talk of disbanding the Winfield Police Department that inspired dozens of volunteers to start circulating petitions to get questions on the ballot.

On the police issue, 2,547 voters signed petitions to prompt an advisory question on the ballot that asks if the village should keep its own police force.

While the ballot question is nonbinding, supporters are hoping it would prevent Winfield from contracting the DuPage County sheriff's office to provide police protection.

"This is something that should be discussed with all the residents," said Steve Romanelli, president of Winfield United, the political group that organized the petition drive. "If you take the police department away, it not only affects our safety but our home values and our quality of life."

Residents have been voicing concerns since trustees agreed in May to pay a consultant $32,000 to evaluate the police department. One of their suspicions has been that the study by REM Management Services is the first step to outsourcing the department's duties.

The issue turned into a firestorm when trustee Erik Spande revealed that the village board was secretly negotiating for months with representatives from the sheriff's office.

Spande, who was at village hall when the petitions were submitted, said he's pleased residents are going to have "a voice" on one of the most significant decisions the village will make.

The arrangement with the sheriff's office is among a variety of scenarios officials are reviewing because Winfield needs to raise millions of dollars for road repairs. Preliminary estimates show the village would save at least $1 million annually if it outsourced its police force.

Board members have said they are waiting for REM to finish its review before deciding the fate of the police department. Spande stressed that the decision shouldn't be made until after the voters have chimed in.

"If the board decides to make a decision before the referendum, there will be torches and pitchforks coming toward village hall," Spande said. "Because that would show complete contempt for public opinion."

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