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Plot thickens in sewage treatment race: Rauner pick could trigger court fight

Left-Right: David J. Walsh. mwrd.org photo; Cam Davis. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times.

The unusual write-in battle for a seat on an obscure water treatment board has become even more strange and convoluted — after Gov. Bruce Rauner quietly made an appointment that could force the whole low-profile election into court.

Just days after last week’s primary, Rauner appointed Republican David Walsh to fill the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District seat that became vacant after the death of Commissioner Tim Bradford.

That comes after Republicans opted not to field any candidates for the seat in the write-in election sanctioned by Cook County officials as part of last week’s primary.

Republicans and Democrats now disagree on whether Walsh will serve beyond the November election, which is expected to feature a Democrat and possibly a Green Party candidate vying for the seat.

Walsh took his oath of office last Friday — three days after the primary — to replace Bradford, who died Dec. 1.

Walsh and Rauner contend Walsh will serve through the end of 2020, when Bradford’s term was to end. But Democrats argue Walsh will be replaced in December, when the winner of the November election is sworn in.

No one is questioning Rauner’s authority to appoint a replacement, but what remains unexplained is why he waited three and a half months — until after the primary — to do so.

Bradford died three days before the Dec. 4 candidate-filing deadline. With little time for candidates to gather signatures to get on the ballot, the Cook County Clerk and State’s Attorney’s Office opted for a write-in election.

Cameron Davis, along with other Democrats and a Green Party contender, registered in time. Davis exceeded the minimum threshold of at least 8,075 write-in votes that a Democrat needs to get on the November ballot — normally a steep hill. Early results show Davis leading in the Democratic primary. No Republican ran, though the party could still appoint a nominee for November’s election.

It was not a typical election.

Voters were given some leeway in writing in the names of candidates. That means votes for Carn Davis, Carr Davis, Camden Davis, or other misspellings of Davis’ name ultimately counted in the preliminary tally of early votes cast for him in Chicago.

The voters’ intent was the key.

“They could have Cam with C-5-M and then Davis could be D-a-v-e-s,” Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners said last week. “Not if it’s Michelle Obama, Bozo the Clown or some name that’s not even on the list of candidates.”

But now all that could be in dispute.

According to the state statute that governs the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, a regional board that manages storm and sewage water, the governor has the authority to fill a vacancy on the board until the next regular election — which is in November.

“Our understanding is that due to the timing of the vacancy, under the statute Gov. Rauner has the responsibility to appoint a new member to serve until 2020,” Rauner spokesperson Rachel Bond said.

Bond said it is premature to answer whether Rauner would go to court to dispute the November election results and prevent the winner from taking office.

This would be Rauner’s third time tapping Walsh to fill vacancies of the board, originally appointing him in 2015, and would extend his tenure for two more years.

“I have been notified by the governor’s office that his appointment is through the general election for 2020, and that is what I understand it to be,” Walsh said.

The Cook County Clerk’s Office, meanwhile, believes the winner of the November election should fill the vacancy.

“The Cook County Clerk’s Office believes November’s general election will determine who fills the Tim Bradford Water Reclamation vacancy,” Nick Shields, Cook County Clerk David Orr’s spokeman said. “In November, whoever receives the most votes in this race will be certified by our office as the winner of the race.”

Mike Kreloff, an election lawyer, Northfield Township Democratic Committeeman and a legal consultant to the Cook County Clerk said “the law seems clear.”

“The final two years of the Bradford term should be determined, if at all possible, by the voters and not by the appointment of anyone,” Kreloff said. “It will not surprise me if someone goes to court on this between today and December of 2018.”

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

Contributing: Lynn Sweet