Stan Nord chided for Unit 5 referendum meddling as police review electioneering complaints
A Normal Town Council member attempted to use his influence as an elected official to sway a police investigation into alleged election interference, according to internal emails and a legal memorandum obtained by WGLT.
The emails and memorandum show that, over a five-day period from March 10-15, Stan Nord pushed Normal Police Chief Steve Petrilli to issue a public statement about an investigation into alleged electioneering activities at Unit 5, despite Petrilli saying that the investigation was ongoing and that NPD does not comment on pending investigations.
“It seems more of the public is sharing their concerns with their elected representatives rather than directly with you. This is understandable,” Nord wrote to Petrilli on March 10. “For the sake of transparency, to eliminate accusations of me miscommunicating things or trying to use this investigation as a platform to help my re-election, it may be better for your department to make or issue a public statement to address the public’s questions. … If you need a certain number of the public to contact you directly in order to make this communication happen, then let me know how many people need to contact you."
By March 15, Town of Normal lawyer Brian Day wrote in a three-page memo to Nord that his continued push for Petrilli to issue a statement and questions as to whether the investigation could be “expedited” were “an orchestrated effort to use your trustee position and Town resources to influence an investigation for political purposes.”
“This presents its own legal implications. To that end, this letter constitutes a preservation notice. You are hereby notified to preserve and maintain any and all documents, correspondence … between you and any third party related to the Unit 5 referendum or any allegations of electioneering concerning that referendum,” Day’s memo read. “Your failure to do so may subject you to legal sanctions.”
PDF - Read Attorney Brian Day's letter to Stan Nord:
Town attorney's memo to Stan Nord by Ryan Denham on Scribd
While Nord’s actions have drawn particular attention due to his status as an elected official, they are not the first instance of community members attempting to use communication, or contact with the Normal Police Department to impact the electoral process: At least two separate complaints have been filed with NPD reporting alleged electioneering by parents and school staff who have advocated for the referendum’s passage. The yes-or-no question on the April 4 ballot asks voters whether Unit 5 should be granted more taxing authority for its education fund.
One woman who felt strongly about the matter called the police to intervene into Unit 5 Music Parents’ tabling at a choir concert last week; police logs and interviews confirm NPD responded to Normal West High School accordingly.
“It’s unique. I don’t remember the last time that it’s been such a politically charged issue like it is right now,” Petrilli told WGLT in an interview. “Things ebb and flow like that and we’re just doing what I think the people’s expectation of the police department is: That we take an unbiased, very objective approach to these things and do our jobs and not be influenced by political agendas.”
'Seldom a good look'
Central to Nord’s justifications for pushing Petrilli to issue a statement, or share details on the February investigation was the argument that “numerous constituents both within Normal and throughout McLean County” had contacted him about the matter.
“To help make your decision to communicate directly with the public, I have attached ~31 of the emails that I have received thus far,” Nord wrote to Petrilli on March 13 after Petrilli said the investigation was ongoing. “Please answer these emails directly, or with some public statement.”
The emails, obtained and analyzed by WGLT, shared similar language and concerns and references to online posts by conservative talk radio station Cities 92.9; in an email to Nord that same day, city manager Pam Reece wrote it was “clear that the emails you shared were the result of a collective promotion since most are cut/paste.”
“It is also noteworthy that some authors of emails are current candidates and political party representatives who’ve taken a public position on the referendum issue,” Reece wrote. “The message to Town of Normal trustees is always to avoid getting into positions whereby you risk violating the law or setting the organization up for a lawsuit.”
Nord declined to give WGLT an interview regarding the allegations of interference Day outlined in the memoranda to him, but did suggest “you should be asking why the town manager was researching the politics of people who emailed questions seeking answers from the police.”
“What significance was it for Pam Reece to point out to the police and council that some who had questions and concerns were elected committee persons of a political party?” Nord wrote. “Another question to ask is why an elected representative would be threatened with a town-funded lawsuit for advocating on behalf of their constituents for the police to speak directly with the public who have police questions?”
Reece, on March 15, emailed Nord directly to clarify that “nothing was researched” and noted, as an example, that a constituent email Nord provided as an incentive for NPD to issue a statement was from Carl Wenning, who described himself “as both Normal 03 Precinct Committeeman and Communication Manager for McLean County Republicans.”
“It’s not rocket science to discern his political affiliation,” Reece added. (The McLean County GOP website describes the local party as against passing the Unit 5 referendum.)
In the legal memorandum addressed to Nord on March 15, Day cautioned Nord from continuing to “attempt to insert yourself into an investigation into alleged electioneering.”
“Doing so is, of course, an inappropriate use of your office and may cross legal lines. Using your office to persecute your political opponents is seldom a good look,” Day wrote. "If your efforts to meddle with that process persist, then the Town will take any and all appropriate legal action.”
'No intent to misuse any district resources to support the referendum in any way, shape or form'
As he did with Nord, NPD chief Petrilli declined to provide updates on the investigations into alleged electioneering to WGLT, reiterating that they were still in-progress.
“I can’t really release any details, but I would say that we are actively following up on the reports that we’ve received,” Petrilli said.
One report — the one filed with NPD that prompted Nord to begin emailing Petrilli on March 10 — was the byproduct of some Unit 5 teachers finding pro-referendum literature in their mailboxes in mid-February. Around that same time, complaints were raised to Unit 5 after a music teacher encouraged parents to “educate” themselves and participate in the current election.
First-time school board candidate Brad Wurth mentioned both of those incidents with Unit 5 superintendent Kristen Weikle at a Feb. 23 event, calling them “illegal electioneering practices that are eroding the very fabric of our democratic process.”
Weikle told Wurth the district had communicated with the Unit Five Education Association (UFEA) teachers' union shortly after concerns were raised over the fliers; she added she and Unit 5 attorney Curt Richardson had watched the video footage of the music teacher's comments at a school concert and determined the teacher “didn’t do anything illegal.”
“I didn’t hear him say anything about, ‘You should vote yes’ or ‘You should vote no,’” Weikle said.
Illinois State Board of Elections spokesperson Matt Dietrich said it’s not uncommon for people to submit questions during election cycles regarding whether it’s permissible for candidacy or other election-related materials to be placed in a teacher’s mailbox.
“Usually … the school district has a policy on allowing or not allowing groups to distribute information,” Dietrich said in an email. “… The question is whether it violates school district policy more than whether it falls under the election interference statute.”
UFEA president Julie Hagler told WGLT on Tuesday that, at least between the union and the district, the matter had been quickly resolved, even if an NPD investigation remains ongoing.
“We do have contractual language that allows us to use mailboxes for union business and that is the context under which we have used mailboxes,” she said. “There was no intent to misuse any district resources to support the referendum in any way, shape or form.”
Richardson said in a statement that incident in particular “does not appear to violate our policy because while the school district cannot distribute these materials, the policy does not speak to individuals doing so.”
Hagler said that, on their own time, UFEA members are allowed to support any political candidate or stance on the referendum as they see fit. For many, that support has been directed to pro-referendum efforts and school board candidates.
“That’s what my members have done: They have showed up en masse every weekend to canvass, to support the referendum because they know how important education is to the students and to this community,” she said.
'The root situation ... is the kids'
Unit 5 Music Parents president Josh Jensen said he wasn’t present at the March 16 concert during the time in which a woman called to report the parental advocacy group’s table display, but he was shocked the complaint had been made to police at all.
“This is definitely something new that I never thought would happen, frankly,” Jensen told WGLT.
The group, which is not formally affiliated with or sponsored by Unit 5, is comprised of parents who have children in the district’s various music programs. Its purpose is to advocate for the children and music programming, Jensen said, and since the current school board said it would cut music programs if the referendum does not pass on April 4, the group has been publicly advocating for the referendum’s passage.
“Right now, the hottest topic for us, what’s most important, is keeping music around, as well as other activities for kids,” he said. “And so at our last meeting as Unit 5 music parents, we down as board with our current members there and discussed what we could do to help promote and support the arts and music in all its forms — choir, orchestra and band.”
What the parents decided on, he said, was getting information to voters, so the group created a sign-up list where parents volunteered to set up and staff tables displaying information about the referendum and school board candidates who have pledged to support its passage.
“It was nothing new for us to do this. We didn’t think anything of it, honestly, because of the fact that we’re not Unit 5 employees. We did this on our own. We’ve always had tables at events. It’s like, ‘This is who we are,’” he said.
Normal resident Vickie Rowe told town council members on Monday that she called the police after seeing table at the concert.
"There were campaign materials on the table right by the door to enter gym for the concert. You couldn't miss it because you had to go past this table of campaign literature," Rowe said.
Similar to what Nord had attempted to do via email, Rowe pushed town officials and NPD to take action.
“Unit 5 needs to be held accountable for these illegal actions. So, I am asking you, what are you going to do about this issue? What is the Normal Police Department going to do about this issue?" Rowe said.
Petrilli emphasized that NPD has taken all of the reports it has received seriously; Dietrich of the State Board of Elections said instead of phoning the police, “if someone believes there is a violation of the election interference statute, a better course of action would be to document the event and contact the state’s attorney.”
Jensen said that while the Unit 5 Music Parents would not advocate for "no" votes on the referendum or school board candidates who do not support it, people with opposing political views were not unwelcome at district events and had been encouraged to set up their own display tables since “everyone has a right to do this.”
“I received an email from someone … where they were like, ‘Why don’t you have a No table here? Where’s the No table?” he said. “We said, ‘We’re not going to have a No table because we’re not for the Nos, however you have every right to able a table just like we do.’ But we haven’t seen one yet.”
NPD released the March 16 incident report taken by a police officer in response to a records request from WGLT.
Read the report below:
Police report: Complaint of electioneering by Ryan Denham on Scribd
In that report, the officer wrote he "do(es) not believe there is evidence to support a criminal allegation of electioneering.
"I recommend this case be administratively closed at this time," the officer's last line read.
Jensen said allegations of electioneering and police involvement at the concert have displaced what he feels the true focus of the election and referendum issue should be: “the kids.”
“That’s the piece I think that’s been lost in all of this. At the end of the day, the root situation, the root people we should be focusing on is the kids,” he said. “There’s a phrase I’ve been saying … that one of my coaching mentors said to me: ‘It’s all fun and games until the adults get involved.’ And that is so true in any capacity.”